A Catholic bishop in Romania has deplored the mass expulsion of Roma from France, and has urged European governments to do more to integrate the continent's Gypsy minorities.
"There are substantial Roma communities in all European countries, not just Romania and Bulgaria," said Virgil Bercea, the Greek Catholic bishop of Oradea.
"When the French drive them out, all they do is return to visit their families and then travel somewhere else, whether back to France, or on to Italy, Spain or Germany."
The 52-year-old bishop, whose church combines the Eastern Orthodox rite with loyalty to Rome, was speaking as European Union heads of government gathered for a 16 September summit in Brussels, which was expected to include a discussion of France's expulsions of Roma.
In a 15 September interview, Bercea said his church had not formally "taken a position" on the deportations, but is working with other groups to help Roma inhabitants of Romania.
Roma made up 2.4 per cent of Romania's population of 22 million in a 2002 official census but many reports say they are more numerous.
"Roma clearly face difficulties in France. There are no Gypsy camps, by comparison, in Germany and Austria, and no particular social problems associated with them," Bishop Bercea told ENInews. "We think it's more important to work with Gypsies than simply to send them back. Most are here today and gone tomorrow anyway, so expulsions are not the solution."
In his interview, Bishop Bercea said his church's Caritas charity has run Roma integration projects for several years, and is attempting to co-ordinate its work with parallel government-backed initiatives. He added that the church has six Roma priests, mostly working in Gypsy communities, but keeps no data on the number of Romania's Roma Catholics.
At least 1000 mostly Romanian and Bulgarian Roma have been expelled since early August from unauthorised camps in France, home to a permanent Gypsy population of some
400 000. The French government campaign was sharply criticised by the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as well as by the country's churches.
On 14 September, the EU's justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, said she was shocked at a situation she had hoped Europe "would not have to witness again after the Second World War". She warned that legal action could be taken against France under EU laws.
However, the deportations were defended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government ministers, who said most foreign Roma are in the country illegally, and will until 2014 require work and residency permits to remain longer than three months.
The expulsions are the latest involving Roma, 10 000 of whom were deported from France in 2009. The action has been backed by two-thirds of French citizens, opinion polls show.
At the same time, the Romanian Orthodox Archbishop of Sibiu, Constantin Necula, compared the French action to the bulldozing of Romanian Gypsy squatter camps around Rome by police in 2007. This also took flak from rights groups as a violation of EU norms.
"For France, as for Italy, this is the typical reaction of a State which cannot solve its own social problems," Archbishop Necula told France's Catholic daily newspaper La Croix on 23 August 2010.
"Romanians, whether Roma or not, are not second-class citizens. What would France have done if these people were Muslims? It would certainly have found a compromise, because the French state is afraid of Islam's reaction. But these Romanian Roma are Orthodox, so France doesn't mind throwing them out," Necula said.
"The church's view is that we should be working with Roma rather than hounding them out - in this sense, the Church is providing a useful model of integration."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]