Pope Francis will meet with members of the 400,000-strong Roma minority in Slovakia on Tuesday during his visit to the impoverished Lunik IX housing estate in Kosice.
The 84-year-old Argentine pontiff, who regularly calls for assistance to the world’s poorest communities, is on his first foreign trip since a colon operation in July.
During the trip so far, the pope has called for Europe to show “solidarity” as its economy recovers from the pandemic and issued a powerful call against anti-Semitism.
In Lunik IX, nearly 4,500 residents are squeezed into a space meant to accommodate half that number.
Many blocks have no electricity, heat, gas or running water as utilities were cut due to unpaid bills.
“It is great that the Holy Father is willing to come to a place where no one wants to go,” said Peter Besenyei, leader of the local Salesian community at Lunik IX, responsible for the pastoral care of the Roma in the Kosice Archdiocese.
“It is difficult to find teachers at Lunik IX, it is difficult to find priests who would be willing to work there, and the pope comes there in this difficult environment,” Besenyei told AFP.
In the weeks ahead of the visit, city authorities got busy fixing a road in the area and cleaning up.
Lunik IX resident Rudolf Mosorov, 66, said the pope’s visit was a “miracle”.
“He will bring us God’s blessing,” he said.
Nearly 20 percent of Slovakia’s Roma live in abject poverty, in more than 600 shanty towns mostly in the south and east of this eurozone country of 5.4 million people.
Eastern Slovakia has one of the lowest GDP per capita levels in Europe.
The Roma have big communities in Central and Eastern Europe and are considered the largest ethnic minority in Europe.
They have faced discrimination for centuries — historians estimate that half a million Roma were killed by the Nazis, wiping out about a quarter of their population.
A 35-member Roma children’s choir will perform for the pontiff, who is expected to say a couple of words in the Romani language.
Pope Francis will also meet with young people in a stadium in Kosice on Tuesday before his last day in Slovakia when he will celebrate an open-air mass in the town of Sastin.