Roma Inclusion in Romanian Orthodoxy: Too Little Too Late?

by Maria Alina Asavei

April 8 is celebrated worldwide as the International Roma Day. Romani people both honour their culture across the world and commemorate the centuries of persecutions and mistreatment in light of present Romaphobia and persistent discrimination against the most vulnerable ethic group in Europe. On this occasion, the Archbishop Andrei of Cluj-Napoca celebrated the liturgy both in Romanian and Romani language. Several daily magazines reported about what they call an “unprecedented event in the history of the Romanian Orthodox Church,” highlighting the fact that the Archbishop Andrei also held a religious memorial service that commemorated the Romani victims deported to Transnistria and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although in 2009 another Orthodox service has been celebrated in the Romani language in the capital of Romania (Bucharest)—by the Orthodox priest of Romani origin Daniel Gangă—the liturgy celebrated in Cluj this year, on the occasion of the International Roma Day, brings to the fore front a commemorative practice that nevertheless acts as historical consciousness. By commemorating the Romani victims of deportations in both Romanian and Romani, the Orthodox service revealed that the painful past is not covered in oblivion. The liturgy was celebrated by the Archbishop Andrei and other Orthodox clerics, including Marin Trandafir Roz (the first Orthodox priest of Romani ancestry from Cluj). Romanian press reveals that the Roma community attended the liturgy with enthusiasm, while children received candies and other goodies from the priests.

The Roma remain the most disenfranchised ethnic minority in Europe, whose life and wellbeing is perpetually threatened by Romaphobia—that is, according to Aidan McGarry (2017) ”the last form of racism”—and other rampant forms of discrimination.The precarious status of the Roma has been addressed in many academic studies, but much less has been done in terms of actually changing this state of affairs. The dire present situation of the Romani people in Europe, and beyond, has historical roots that many times are shrouded in oblivion. More often than not, the history of Roma persecutions is not even mentioned in textbooks in schools. Among many Central and South-Eastern European countries where the Roma live and work, Romania has a particularly atrocious history of subjecting Roma to a peculiar type of enslavement (called robie in Romanian). For 500 years (from the 14th century until the mid 19s century), the Roma from Moldova and Walachia, have been treated like animals by providing a work force for Christian Orthodox monasteries, among others. As historian Viorel Achim argues, there are particular criteria for classifying the Roma slave population in the historical provinces of the Romanian lands. For instance, “Slaves belonging to monasteries mostly originated from gifts made by the princes and the boyars.” (Viorel Achim, 1998: 29).

The five centuries of Roma slavery and the ensuing consequences are seldom present in contemporary public debates of Romania, and the official culture of remembrance and commemoration of this painful historical past is still reluctant to materialize these memories of exploitation and oppression in national museums of history, public monuments, national memorials, art galleries, and state-sponsored art museums. As in the case of the Roma Holocaust during Nationalsozialismus and its allies, the horrendous enslavement of the Roma is greeted in Romania with a wall of excruciating silence. Yet, the Centre of Romani Culture, Romano Kher (based in Bucharest) displays online several important archival documents that attest the ordeals Roma suffered at the hands of boyars and Orthodox monasteries. The online project Romano Rodipe (Roma Slavery) makes accessible and distributes knowledge about the historical past.

Roma and non-Roma human rights activists requested the leaders of the Orthodox Church to officially and publicly apologize to the Romani communities for the centuries of slavery.  The Orthodox Church of Romania now has the chance to restore social trust and justice from historical oblivion and overlapping injustices. The current struggle Romani communities are experiencing in Romania is not detached from the past ordeals. On the contrary, the intergenerational and trans-generational transmissions of traumatic memories of countless abuses of power prevent many Roma from coming to terms with the past and looking confidently towards the future. The cultural memory of Roma oppression is expressed by contemporary artists of Roma descent in various formats. A recent art exhibition, suggestively entitled God’s Servants (Robii lui Dumnezeu), took place in Bucharest in 2015. The artists George Vasilescu and Lucian Sandu-Milea exhibited their critical art that discloses the unresponsiveness of the leaders of the Orthodox Church vis-à-vis the uncomfortable subject of Roma Slavery. Yet, this artistic critique did not preclude any other cultural formats from taking shape.

The range of reparative measures after a violent past includes both financial and symbolic reparations.  Researchers of peace after conflict have stressed the major role of apologies in the process of redress and in restoring social trust. The religious dimension of apologies can be noticed in various rituals of atonement that go beyond mere forgiveness by fostering an ethics and politics of care (Wilson & Bleiker, 2013). While the role of apologies in the politics of regret and collective memory should not be underestimated, public apologies are not enough in dismantling the stereotypes about the Roma, who are still regarded in Romania and elsewhere as perpetual villains and underclass citizens.  The “wrongdoings” committed in the past linger on in the present, and their deleterious consequences are still pervasive. Political apologies are well-received as long as they function hand in hand with performative gestures of reciprocity. In light of this civic and political philosophy of reciprocity, the mutual exchange between Roma and non-Roma might highlight the mutual collective responsibilities to commemorate the painful past in light of present concerns. The unprecedented liturgy celebrated both in Romanian and Romani language, by both Roma and non-Roma priests, might foster social trust and collective wellbeing.

Sources/Further Reading

McGarry Aidan (2017) Romaphobia: The Last Accepted Form of Racism. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Achim Viorel (1998) The Roma in Romanian History. Budapest: Central European University.

Wilson Erin and Roland Bleiker (2013) “Performing Political Apologies,” Memory and Trauma in International Relations, edited by Erica Resende and  Dovile Budryte, London: Routledge.

Maria Alina Asavei is a lecturer at the Institute for International Studies at Charles University in Prague and 2018/2019 NEH Faculty Fellow at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.