William Yoder – Fearing ‘Gypsies’ No More – On the Roma in Europe and Russia

26/11/05
St.Petersburg region, st.Peri
the gipsies on platform.

M o s c o w — Much of Roma history remains shrouded in mystery – there is no consensus even on the matter of numbers. According to Wikipedia, the highest number of Roma (once called “gypsies” as derived from the word “Egyptian”) are located in the USA – around a million. Yet the Zurich journal “Religion und Gesellschaft in Ost und West” (RGOW) reports that the governments of Eastern Europe intentionally underestimate their number. Twenty-two-million-strong Romania now claims to have 408.000 Roma citizens, yet RGOW believes the number could be as high as three million. Roma are said to be Europe’s largest minority of 10 to 12 million. Their worldwide population could be as high as 60 million. The counting problems are compounded by the fact that there is no single definition of the term “Roma”.

It is generally accepted that ethnic Roma began their trek westward from India around the 7th century A.D.; a traditional stronghold has been southeastern Europe. Some later headed eastward, arriving first in the Polish–Lithuanian Union and the other Baltic states. They only arrived in the Russian kingdom after some regions were annexed by the Czar in the 18th century. Though strongest in Moldova and Ukraine, Roma can now be found even in the Russian Far East.

Reports state that the Roma were initially no more nomadic than native tribes. In time, they became a major unskilled-but-reliable workforce. The coming of Fascist Germany then brought deportation, extermination and major upheaval; as many as 500.000 may have been killed. Following WW II, the socialist governments of Eastern Europe attempted to force their assimilation by reintegrating them into the labour forces for heavy industry. In October 1956, the Supreme Soviet banned nomadism, forcing Soviet Roma to accept stationery housing. Soon, more than 90% of the USSR’s Roma were settled.

Burkhard Paetzold, PC USA’s Berlin-based “Liaison for Central and Eastern Europe/Roma“, points out that Roma were the first to lose their jobs after the economic collapse of 1989/90. The resulting ghettoization “shows discrimination and the one hand and the attempt to return to and protect Roma family structures on the other hand. It is said there are almost no homeless Roma!”

Peter Romme, a Kostroma-based Baptist missionary with ties to the PC USA, notes that Roma are a people of peace. Despite their frequent reputation as petty thieves and drug-dealers, they “have never incited a single war nor produced weaponry”.

Roma Culture

Pastor Romme, an ethnic German from the Irkutsk region of Russia, reports that Roma love celebrations: Christmas and Easter for ex. Romme states that Roma will celebrate holidays for two to three days: “In general, they celebrate until the money runs out.” Long-term investing is obviously not their forte.

Roma in time have usually accepted the faith of the surrounding culture: They are Muslim in Kazakhstan, Orthodox in western Russia and Roman Catholic in Poland. Yet their reluctance to forsake the old is apparent in their syncretism. They are called the last goddess worshippers of Europe and have placed great faith in the power of charms, curses, healing rituals and fortune-telling. Persons of dubious character can reincarnate as vicious animals. Women are expected to dress extremely modestly; sexual terms in the Bible – circumcision for ex. – are avoided in a Roma worship service. Pre-marital sex is forbidden, but many Roma youth are married before they become teenagers.

Their longing for miraculous signs and healing have given them a natural proximity to Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. Andrey Beskorovainy, a Roma Baptist pastor from Ukraine supported by the PC USA and living in Kursk/Russia near the Ukrainian border, reports that “gossip” and suppositions have led to near-panic situations among evangelical Roma. During Easter in 1991 and 2000, Roma refused to eat jointly claiming: “It will mean the end of the world if we sit down together at a banquet table.” Citing the lack of theological training among Roma, Beskorovainy quotes Matthew 24:36 and insists: “Brother and Sister – do not believe this gossip!”

Work among Roma has also demanded flexibility on the part of stiff, local missionaries – Roma believe in traditional dance and merry (also Christian) music. Roma have even struck a blow for the cause of female empowerment. A study on the Roma by the Ukrainian Olena Marchuk reports on the blind Albina Kozoriz. After joining a non-Registered Baptist congregation in Merefa/Ukraine in the mid-1990s, she began to preach and planted several congregations. Following her marriage to a blind man in 2004, the two began a ministry among the visually-impaired in Kiev.

Roma and the Evangelicals

Evangelical work among Europe’s Roma gained momentum only after WW I; Austrians financed a chapel for Roma in northwestern Bulgaria in 1930. RGOW claims that evangelicalism has made its biggest mark among Bulgarian Roma, especially since 1989. The number of Pentecostal Roma in that country is said to total 50.000.

Ukrainian evangelicals began to evangelise among the Roma in the early 1950s. Olena Marchuk’s study reports that underground samizdat literature produced by the unregistered Baptists in the 1970s included passages written in Roma dialects. By 1975, a congregation of unregistered Baptist Roma had formed in the village of Korolovoy Podvinogradov on the Hungarian border in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine. Two congregations there now have a total membership of 600. The conversion of a Roma „baron“, Grigory Maritsaskov, in Khmelnitsky (western Ukraine) in May 2011 made headlines. Another relative hotbed of evangelical activity among the Ukrainian Roma is Volchansk – near Kharkov and the Russian border on the opposite, northeastern end of the country.

The many and varied efforts among Roma have suffered from a lack of networking. Consequently, the evangelical Roma of Russia have been holding an annual conference in Kursk since 2005. Ellen Smith, a PC USA worker based in Berlin, reported recently that Andrey Beskorovainy has been officially recognized as head of the Roma network in Russia. She added: “This is no small thing. It has been a long process shifting the leadership (of Roma ministries) from Russians to Roma.”

Yet it must be remembered that the number of Roma evangelicals within Russia proper remains modest. “Operation World” lists only 9.000 for the entire ex-USSR. The annual Kursk conference in 2008 hosted only 70 Roma from 21 locations. The Kursk congregation, founded by Beskorovainy in 2004, is often described as Russia’s sole congregation of evangelical Roma – yet it has hardly more than 20 members. But significant efforts also exist in Michurinsk (Tambov region), Novoshakhtinsk (near Rostov) and Syzran (Volga). Rev. Romme remains committed to serving the Roma of Siberia and the Far East. Roma reserve regarding evangelicals can be attributed to a general distrust of outsiders – intermarriage with non-Roma remains rare. Beskorovainy states succinctly: “The best missionaries to Roma are the Roma themselves.”

Bible translation has been a major concern – Wycliffe for ex. is involved. Yet the Roma of Europe are divided into 40 groups, each with its own cultural traditions and dialect. There is no one Roma culture and tongue understood by all. Modest efforts to create an artificial Roma “Esperanto” have appeared – but no Martin Luther capable of devising a common language attractive to all. Some groups even oppose the appearance of their own language in written form.

Illiteracy remains a major issue. Romme estimates that 75% of Russia’s Roma are illiterate. Audio tapes and videos – for ex. the world-renown film “Jesus” – therefore play a vital role in evangelisation. Since the 1970s, Baptists and Pentecostals have used Roma Sunday schools to further the cause of literacy. A few of the most promising Roma – Andrey Beskorovainy for ex. – have attended Bible schools. Fostering musical training for gifted musicians has been an additional, side concern.

One of the largest missions involved with East European Roma is the France-based “Gypsy and Travelers International Evangelical Fellowship” (GATIEF). Others include the “Hope to People” organisation based in Rovno/Ukraine as well as the US-based “Southern Baptist Convention” and the “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship”. Methodists are reported to be particularly active in Bulgaria. The “Reformed Church of America” has a couple based in Budapest and serving the Roma.

US-Presbyterians care about the downtrodden. It’s therefore natural for them to notice the Roma of Eastern Europe and Russia. The PC USA’s effort, begun in 2001, consists primarily of its three-member team in Berlin along with Nadia Ayoub in Ukraine and Karen Moritz in Prague. Liz Searles will soon begin serving in Romania. This team is committed to more than simple church planting. Ellen and Al Smith speak for ex. of “empowerment” and a “gospel of inclusion”. Paetzold explains: “We try to support a holistic approach: social services, infrastructure programs, pre-school education, housing, job creation, church leadership training, youth summer camps, youth exchange programs, multicultural learning for white people and advocacy. Christians have been guilty of racist and discriminatory attitudes. This cannot be changed overnight. So working in partnership means you have to find the right partners.”

For the PC USA, small is also beautiful. Paetzold reports on a massive, EU-sponsored “Roma industry” which in the end stigmatizes Roma as aid recipients and reinforces negative stereotypes. “The challenge is to find human-scale development based in existing Roma communities which we can accompany. We are still in the beginning; we have built up a small network in Europe and the US. Presbyterian women have served as a great support network.” They even call for 10 days of prayer for the Roma, ending every year on 8 April.

In his 2008 report on the Roma congregation in Kursk, the Baptist Vladimir Popov dreamt of a time when parents will no longer frighten naughty offspring by threatening them with “Uncle Policeman and the gypsies”. Fortunately, such longings are no less international than the Roma themselves.

William Yoder, Ph.D.

Berlin, 04 January 2013

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Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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