Scattered diversity of cultures

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Living scattered all over Europe, not having a country to call their own, Gypsies are a true European minority but one that does not fit in the definitions of national or linguistic minorities." Council of Europe recommendation, January 1994.

"To be a Gypsy is not just an ethnic identity, but is also a stigma." Nicolae Gheorghe of the International Roma Union.

The term Traveller refers to diverse communities who have traditionally led nomadic lifestyles. In Britain, these include Gypsies or RomaRomanies, Irish travellers, fairground families, circus families, New Age travellers and bargees.

Most numerous in Europe and in this country are the Roma people, colloquially known as Gypsies, who migrated from northern India 1,000 years ago, settling all over the world.

They are made up of many different tribal groupings and, through their scatterings, have become culturally diverse.

What unites them is the Romany language, much of which has a Sanskrit or Hindi derivation and is itself comprised of 100 dialects.

Like the black Africans, the Roma suffered centuries of enslavement in central and eastern Europe.

As recently as 1973, hundreds of Gypsy children in Switzerland were forcibly removed by the state and placed with non-Gypsy families.

In this country, too, they suffered centuries of persecution. Laws permitted children to be taken into slavery and nomadism was an offence punishable by hanging until the mid 17th century.

Like the Jews, their distinctiveness has aroused distrust and hatred wherever they have gone. The apotheosis of that hatred came during the Holocaust, when between a quarter and a half a million Gypsies were annihilated.

Almost all the Roma populations of Belgium, Holland, Estonia, Croatia and Lithuania were wiped out while only half of all German, Czech, Austrian, Latvian and Polish Gypsies survived, according to Margaret Brearley in The RomaGypsies of Europe.

Exact numbers are unknown, but it is estimated that there are between 7 and 8.5 million Roma in Europe; over 5.2 million of them live in central and eastern Europe.

Roma have traditionally taken on the religion of the communities in which they live, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Muslim. But since the early 1950s the Light and Life evangelical pentecostal movement, a Gypsy-centred, Bible-based spiritual group, has been meeting the spiritual and cultural needs of many thousands of Romanies across Europe.

Globally, the nomadic way of life of Gypsies, which has allowed them to move to around has been eroded dramatically over the past 50 years by Communist edict in the former Soviet bloc countries and in this country by the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

As Margaret Brearley points out: "Because Roma are largely unprotected by international law, most countries still have no national laws to protect them . . . (They) remain a powerless minority, the most vulnerable and poorest of Europe's peoples within the new market economy." Reva klein

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