(AFP) – Aug 22, 2010
CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday asked French pilgrims to welcome people of all origins, just days after France repatriated more than 200 Roma and Gypsies in a controversial crackdown.
The pope said Sunday's scriptures were "an invitation to know how to accept legitimate differences among humans, just like Jesus came to pull together men from every nation and speaking every language."
Amid fierce criticism from opposition politicians and human rights groups, France flew Roma and Gypsies back to Romania on "a voluntary basis" on Thursday and Friday in exchange for grants of 300 euros (385 dollars) per person.
But any foreign-born Roma caught up in French President Nicolas Sarkozy's crackdown on illegal Gypsy camps who refused to take a flight will be issued orders to leave France within a month, without the handout.
Benedict, speaking on Sunday after his weekly Angelus prayer at his papal summer residence outside Rome, also invited parents to educate children in tolerance.
"Dear parents, may you be able to educate your children to universal fraternity," he told pilgrims from Paris in French.
The Vatican had criticised the crackdown on Friday, saying Paris was flouting European norms.
"One cannot generalise and take an entire group of people and kick them out," said Agostino Marchetto, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, a Vatican body.
"The mass expulsions of Roma are against European norms," Marchetto told AFP. "I think the issue of our travelling brothers' integration goes beyond France, it's a European issue."
Echoing the Vatican's concerns in France was a Roman Catholic priest active in defending Roma rights, Father Arthur, who wrote to French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux to refuse a national medal of honour that he was in line to receive.
"For three years, the (Roma) community has been subjected to war," said the priest, who lives and works in the northern city of Lille.
Speaking to reporters after mass, Father Arthur went so far as to say: "I pray for Mr Sarkozy to have a heart attack," although later Sunday he said he regretted making such a strong remark.
In southern France, the Archbishop of Aix-en-Provence and Arles, Christophe Dufour, said he personally witnessed the dismantling of a Roma camp on Thursday.
"Caravans were destroyed," the archbishop said. "I do not accuse the police, who were only following orders, but I ask that people and their dignity be respected."
"Talk about security that suggests that there are inferior people is unacceptable," he added. "These people, European citizens, live for the most part peacefully here, a certain number of them for many years."
Italy's interior minister praised the French crackdown in an interview on Saturday, saying France was "simply copying Italy."
"For years now, Italy has been using the technique of voluntary and assisted repatriation," said Roberto Maroni, one of the leading figures in the anti-immigrant Northern League party.
The Italian bishops' foundation for migrants replied to Maroni's comments, arguing again that the repatriations were against Europan law.
"According to the European Commission they are illegal, because they involve people that are free to move and settle in Europe," Giancarlo Perego, head of the Migrantes foundation, told Vatican Radio.
Although Romanian and Bulgarian Roma are European Union citizens, France has reserved the right until 2014 to bar immigrants from newer member states from the jobs market and to expel them after three months.
France expelled around 10,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria last year, but last week's repatriations were the first since Sarkozy announced a tough law-and-order crackdown explicitly linking crime and immigration.
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