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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 110 (Suppl.), August 2009




Dr. Vasil BURTEA

Translation, MS. Mădălina BURTEA



This study desires to be an attempt of approaching a subject that has never constituted the object of a research or reflection on ones behalf: the religiousness of Roma people and their relation to different churches and/or religions: especially to the Orthodox Church (concerning Roma people in Romania).

The purposes of the study are not only to realise the first challenge-openings to an ignored domain, but to awake the curiosity (and not only) through the contained affirmations; probably future work-hypothesis.

The analysis of the social and cultural roots of the situation, the impact of the lack of a common territory of Roma, the effects of slavery and the way of treatment offered to this people, by the clergy itself, is constituted in to a pleading for research, knowledge and social intervention.

The fact that Roma from Romania, like Roma from the entire Europe, did not develop or create a proper, specific religion to be joined and practiced by their large majority, a religion that should be characteristic in the way of building a religious identity, as it happens to the other nations of Europe, is a very well known truth which has axiomatic value. Despite all appearances, Roma people are (generally speaking) deeply religious persons, with a faith which suggest depth through the seriousness and emotional charge of their being, as the daily practise and especially the long termed-co participative observation remarks. This faith seems to establish without pre-established rules, which makes impossible for one, as an observer, to distinct the type or process-order in accordance with what is shared or uttered. Roma people honest believe in a supernatural, almighty EXISTENCE, to conduct their lives and influence their destiny. They know this existence must be respected and invoked, but at the same time they must fear it, because it monitories them beyond the palpable. This is the reason why they must beseech it to stand by their side, to protect them and most importantly to guarantee their LUCK. The beseech is made without any distinguishable rules and without an accessible and known preformulation which is familiar at least to a quasi-totality, the prayer. They believe and fear but at the same time they hope. 

The explanation is difficult and causal multiple: Either the lack of methodical initiation or the personal impossibility of a verbal expression of an intimate living, which is accountable through the lack of exercise in cultural institutions where they can feel comfortable, as owners or not or closer to reality, all at some and some more.

The option to one or another of the causes is more then difficult because of the keen deficiency of serious, documentary, theoretical, elaborated or argued papers even at sociological level if not as specific philosophy.

Lucian Cherata [6, 60] tells us that “Roma believe in a principle of good, Del (“God”) and a principle of Evil, Beng” (“the Devil”). The only “prayers” of a gipsy are short invoking phrases like: O Del si baró! (“God is great”!), Dévla, na mai múndar ma! (“God, stop killing me”! Ajutil to Del! (“God help you”! Del to Del baht! (“God give you luck”!) Del o Del mai but! (“God give more”!) Etc”.

Cunoscând importanţa norocului în viaţa de zi cu zi a rromilor, mai corect spus cultul norocului în comunităţile rrome, invocaţia pe care autorul citat o scrie Del to Del baht! ar trebui scrisă Del to Del BAHT! şi tradusă: “Să-ţi dea (dee) Domnul NOROC”!

Apart from this, superstitions determine attitudes and behaviours for Roma people which transposes them into a light and approaches them more to faith than magic (faith into the danger represented by the rabbit, the faith that dead become wraith and from here derives the necessity of processions and periodical rituals ment to avoid (to stop) the phenomena which can produce on their detriment, faith in the supernatural possibilities of the black chicken with featherless neck, all being signs or warnings on the behalf of the same almighty EXISTANCE. The aspect suggests either the lack of religious ”dowry” (the little religious knowledge is borrowed or cumulated from the contact populations [3, 33], which claims the needs of enrichment with new elements), or a reminiscence from the Indian times when EVERYTHING was hegemonic and the natural and supernatural, the mythical and the real, the sacred and the profane melt and interpenetrate, a process which the poet in masterly manner synthesises and estimates: “Astfel şi pasere şi ram/ Şi Soarele şi Luna/ Se nasc şi mor la sfântul Brahm,/ În care toate-s una (s.n) [7, 389 bottom]” (which means something like ”So the birds and the branch, the Sun and the Moon, born and die to the holy Brahm, where all are one”.

A series of questions or why not, suspicions with no coherent explanation, because of the serious lack of materials concerning this domain (not only deep, reference writings but also descriptions and presentation materials), as I earlier mentioned, are born.

The situation handles at least two explanations:

a. The native, Romanian population’s (the majority) point of view. It has asked herself some questions about Roma and tried to find some answers much to late, because its preoccupation about ”the written” manifested late, when Roma people became an usual and continue presence into the demographic scenery of the land. Into the conscience of the era, they appeared as something given and required no study or explanations. Also, through their spot and their role in the society, Roma people represented a non-disturbing entity, the reason why they did not draw attention or the interest in a peculiar way. But here interposes an extremely important element. It is known that a very significant part of the XIII-XIX centuries’ Roma were monasteries-Roma, who found themselves under valahian and moldavian Orthodox monastery property and service. These possessed more slaves than the rule itself. If their legal status was that of slaves of the monasteries, what was their religious status? What was the relation to the church and the cult practise of these people who spent their whole life around and on the domains of the Orthodox monasteries? Had they the right or the obligation to participate to the holy ceremony, received they a religious education. A certain introduction into the typical or entered they the category of “speaking animals” that had the obligation to ensure the neatness, the external functionality and wellbeing of the monastery life, without participating to the essential of that life (minimal proportions to the sacred and the divinity)? Given the embarrassing compendious religious (Orthodox) dowry of the Roma communities, it seems that only the second part of our interrogation finds its reality. Monasteries did not succeed to create to their own slaves “habituations” and more the less their “dispositions” for the holy and sacred from the religions they practised, from which they lived and had the obligation to spread as much as possible in order to get the people to the path of faith practiced by the members and the representatives of the monasteries because they probably did not want to. At the almost opposite pole, appears the life of some communities from Transylvania, former slaves on the estates of the Saxons, which legally hole something else than slaves ment. Best examples were communities from villages from Mures like Uila and Archita which however are not unique. The descendents of the former Roma slaves occupied not only the lodgings of the descendents of the former Saxons owners, after the emigration of the Saxons from Germany, but they also took their churches over, which because of the lack of priests held the same ceremony as the Saxons in the Saxon language (not German), a ceremony they tought by heart since it was held by Saxons (because they did not know to write or to read Saxon language). But how can one learn a ceremony and to pass it on to the descendents without participating (with pleasure and trust), without being by the side of the holders (who attracted them without being hostile) from which one learns and with whom one shares the same standards and religious values? 

The answer to this question cannot arise only from the qualitative estimation of the relations which have been established over the time between the two minorities and social categories or over the type of treatment, eventually only interpreted as fortunate exceptions.

First, we must observe that it was not said for no reason that, for the slaves from the Principates, Transylvania meant freedom, which was by a hole new legal status defined but also by a hole new relational behaviour.

Second, things get more depth if we consider that an International Catholic Committee for Roma exists and that the Catholic Church is the same which included in 1997 the Roma horse dealer from Spain into the Catholic calendar Zeferino Giménez Mala between its saints, which is celebrated every year on the 4th of May...

The intense and particular determined activity of the Little Sisters from the Petit Fouoconier order for the nomadic Roma and, years ago, the significant activity of some Roman-Catholic priests into their parishes from the so-called Orthodox countries represent examples which create another image. Undutiful, there are other, unknown to the author, existent examples, but even the presented ones are sufficient to take us with the mind not only to another altitude but also to another conception of the Catholic Church about the landing of relations with the members of the Roma population.

b. From the Roma population’s point of view. In spite of the great Brahman thinkers, of the many openings in the science of the time and of the respect for knowledge, materialized into the existence and protection of the great libraries of Ancient India, the large majority of the Indian population did not appeal to the written form in order to communicate something to their fellow creatures or to retain facts and events.

The few existing writings, referring to the relation between Roma and religion, stay at the level of the hypothesis which, as shocking as it is, grows pale in the lack of the checked up measures.

As follows, the legendary teacher tells us, talking about Roma people, that they would be Adams descendents from an earlier marriage of Eve and so, from beyond the original sin. Also Vaillant affirms that Roma people are those who wrote the bible ten centuries before the Jews [14, 132]. Unfortunately, the shocking theory of the unusual thinker and French militant, who left the print of its amazing activity on the Romanian school and education from its time also, reduces at this affirmation without bring us even some concise arguments. 

*     *     *    

The few assessments of the present work, work that has no pretentions for being the beginning of a theory but only an aperture, a first step or a challenge, substantiates on the secondary analysis of some investigation dates, obtained from national and international sociological inquiry, an inquiry unrolled in the last decade of the II millennium and on the co participative observations of the author in some Roma communities.

The opinion which forms itself shows that the lack of own cultural Roma institutions set its fingerprint on the entire religious profile and on the religious membership of the entire ethnic group. 

Let us not forget that the Roma population or more precisely, primeval Roma population [3, 24] came off from a space with known religions, the most in a theoretical way, only by some initiated people from the Balkans, which we are referring to.

Regarding the cult-practise or its acceptance, things were standing less better.

Practising one’s own religion needs not only the difficult to get accepted by the native populations from a tome when religious intolerance manifested with ruthless difficulty but also cultural elements and much too sophisticated monumental edifices, which were expensive and hard to realise. The architecture was totally different, the edifices supposed real gigantic dimensions, the necessary materials belonged tot the rare category, hard to be pronounced in the European - Balkan area. The necessary fonds meant huge efforts, which were impossible to assimilate from a spread population who finds itself constantly in movement, into the search of social command and who did not live in the same area.

The deviation from the norms and conditions, or at least adapting forms and traditional principles, was inconceivable for a population that was defined by the traditionalism [1, 10], which preferred the lack of institutions and cultural practices instead of the diverting from the tradition which was one and the same with the existence.

These are the main reasons for which Roma did not develop an own religious life.

A serious contribution to this state constituted also the fact that into a continuous search of the social commend [3, 50], from which the existence of the numerous families depend, they did not allowed themselves to live together in large communities, on a territory which they populated almost exclusively (like it happened to the Magyar, German, Czech, Slovak, Turkish, etc populations), to exploit it from economical point of view in their own name and after their own conception. In this way it would have been possible to free development of a spiritual life and of personal culture, in which a personal way of living would reflect, their own set of values, dominant norm and specific traditions. In fact, this cause could be also an effect! 

In reality, Roma did not had the chance of preservation, auto-development and perfection of vast, unique and partial independent culture - the existence of these characteristics suppose a great groups of people who live together on a common field which they use into a prolonged, productive and transformatory practice. Nomadism, determined by the encount of the social command [3, 50] or of some more permissive masters, constituted the Roma ”nomos”, which is situated in an antonomous situation, like effects and conception, with the sedentary Greek ”nomos” (delimitation and possession of the own land).

Given the facts, it is obvious it could not be possible (objectively) neither the enlightening, nor the creation or the ensurence of the under structural forms that are absolutely necessary for the expression, transmission, creation, adaptation or recollection of a new face for the different forms and structures which belong to the religious or/ and cultural patrimony.

In other words, the chance of lasting of personal, administrative, religious placements was practically cancelled, the same happens to the cultural, modern educational etc. domains also.

The only institutions were the roles and respective function could be initiated and practiced was the family and the small-sized oral community, dominated and characterised by Rromanipen, seen by Delia Grigore as fundamental law of Roma and around which a whole system of norms, values and values which rule in a community. [8, 21].

The lack of the mentioned chances made the life of the Roma population to gravitate around the verb ”to be”, as ”to exist” and not around the verb ”to have” as ”to cumulate”, like it happened to the majority of the other populations. This fact put its mark on the way of living, of thinking, on the relations to the others but also on the relations to the divinity and the transcendental. The result took its form into a defensive-contemplatory attitude towards life and its problems.

The aspect represents either the beginning or the reflex (effects) of a tendency which is crucial from historic point of view for “to be”, before “to have”, which means a detachment whose nature cannot be else than despair and lack of safety.

This is the foundation on which a personal philosophy, dominated by a conscious present which refuses itself the perspective of the future, unfortunately defined by the saying: “Live today, tomorrow is another day; we will see if we will get there”, a philosophy which proved (in a way that may seem paradoxal at the first site), capable to ensure the longevity and continuity.

This philosophy represents the explicative base for the longevity of these people, labelled as being one of the most ancient of the history, a people which survived some famous people, with great names one time, with better situations, power and incomparable wealth compared to the Roma, with philosophies and most rigorous religious systems.

It is impossible not to notice the fact that, in time, feeling the deep human need of relating, nevertheless, organised to the supernatural, to the almighty BEING which conducts their existence and the need of religious service from which the non-Roma (with whom the Roma lived) benefited, Roma people reached the hand to their closest in order to achieve, in most cases, to the dominant religions from the areas they settled. Another part of them, fewer, preferred to simply ignore the norms and cultural practices, either because of the treatment they subdued, or from other reasons, or because of the way of living

The last aspect finds its reality in the cause of Roma populations whose existence was tied up to the nomadic (voyager) way of living. The baptise of the sun represented the ceremony which the born of the roads enjoyed, the funeral ceremony and the nuptial ceremony were celebrated by the lay leader, and submission unrolled in front of the Sun. The lay leader being forced to settle and to belong to an area opted both for the traditional churches and especially for the Neo-protestants ones

The others, characterised by a long sedentary life, which lived by the side of the Orthodox people, adhered to the Orthodoxism (they are the majority in Romania), another numerous part are Catholics (in some countries from Moldova, some from Transylvania and a few in anat), some are Reformed and a minority are Evangelic.

Some Roma who lived in Dobrogea passed to Islam, specific for the Turkish population (the majority in the area sometime in the past in Dobrogea). Many of the Roma who were not attracted were actually not received or satisfied by the existent “traditional religions”, guided themselves to other confessions, especially the Pentecostal culture.

This way there are Adventist, Baptist, Apostolic and Mosaic Roma to find [16, 296], but as many as the mentioned cultures.

One could say that as part of the Roma ethnic, we meet a whole religious mosaic [3, 147], the collocation which synthesises the marginal participation of Roma to the religious life of a majority with whom they live together.

The fact that Roma did not have cultural institutions, personal churches which could help them „to get around” in order to contribute to the development of the language, culture and the religious practices threw reproduction and accumulation and also to a commune psychology and even forming some commune interest, a group interest, permitted this religious split [ibidem] which actually means a marginal alienated participation to the spiritual life of other populations, like K. Marx [10, 425] would say.

If we further analyze, we’ll find that alienating and marginalising the community (only in part wanted by some of the Roma population) are achieved by the need and in service of religion, in parts that are important to life: giving birth, marriage, death. These all are due by possibilities and origins. A religious life is less met.

Because we have spoke about some concessions that the Roma made, we give an example and say that the Roma have forgotten, adapted or transformed religious believes and their own divinities, by changes in most cases, in order to transfer them into the world of symbols, festivities or traditional religious ceremonies or into ethnographic customs.

In this way, the trident of Siva (the trisula), the Indian God, has become the Christian Cross (the tris), and all the prayers and offerings brought by tradition to this God have transformed into a “Christian walk of Siva”, a custom also known in some areas as “walking with Vasilica” (a pig’s head adorned; around it, the people wished and exorcised).

Patradi, also known as Patragi, is a festivity that has adapted to the Christian religious holidays and translated into Christian people language as the Easter [17,184], although the Roma have their roots in an unholy land that meets no Easter.

To be more precise, Pastradi or Pastragi should be translated as the “leaf’s song”, an old Indian festivity, kept also in the spring. This helped bringing it closer to Christianity. So, it should explain why in some traditional Roma communities, the oldest man, the leader of the community, shares with the others small branches from trees that are not found around the river course.

The great linguist and Roma researcher W.R. Rischi, said that “the time passing and the more and more distant contact with the homeland, combined with Christianity, made the Roma forget about their protector Goddess Kalica (Kali) [the black Goddess, kalo = black] and gave her a new form and a new name, Sarah” [13, II].

Francesc Botey explains the option for a feminine divinity: “one of the Meridional Indian religious forms, especially in dravinian culture, was concentrating on local feminine divinity. Mohenjo-Daro was the city where the Kali cult was found”.

The regious disregarding manifested into the religious mosaic of the Roma population, find itself another indicator in the used cultural language. “The Rromany language is not used into religious activities, one of the most important sources of keeping the language of a minority. When Roma participate to the religious life, they do it together with the majority and in heir language.” [15, 22], which can be Romanian. Magyar, German, Turkish, etc. It is about practicing the traditional religions, of course.

From the above mentioned and in spite of surpassing some oppressions, formulated by their own traditions, we hope that the existence of some real and significant “social distances” [5, 205] glimpses between Roma and other ethnics in relation to the cultural practice, even if they are of the same church. Not only that what Ralph Linton the need of “emotional response” called, has not been realised, but neither has the so called “pure behaviour responses” [ibidem] component (characteristic for the social desirability been realised.

From what I could observe, the mentioned distance does not have its origins into the differences of religious conception or into the relationing methods to the cultural activity type, the distance has its origin into the perception of some by others as being different, in spite of a declared fellowship of faith. In other words, the rejection or the keeping to distance dues the affiliation to different ethnics. Vintila Mihailescu appreciates that once with the “status mobility” of Roma groups, the other groups see themselves threatened in their privileges based on the old discrimination of Roma [11, 19]. In other words, the specific stereotype of social civil life finds themselves, unfortunately, also in the religious life, under the cupola of the same church, frequented by the members of the same religion, but which came from different ethnic areas. In the same direction, John Rex warns us that “if the attribution of the semi-group of their own position (the attribution of x by y or the y by x) is based o ethnicity, it will not be altered in front of exterior pressions and in what concerns the attribution of the position of some other semi-groups they are simply negatively evaluated, as outsiders [12, 54].

In a study presented at Napoli, Italy, on 23 of March 2007, at the international seminar “Community Force – Social Inclusion and Ethnic Networks in Four European Countries”, I have mentioned racial hatred as a form of discrimination. I have also spoke about it as having “as the base and source of power the hostility towards what is different as a social group or form of different existence. It’s a process in which the quality of social education represents the decisive factor”.

Also in that study, I was explaining this form of discrimination by the anti-Jewish laws from the Romanian Antonescu Era or by the Jewish genocide from Moldavia, Bucovina or Bessarabia and collective assaults against Roma communities, after the December 1989 Romanian revolution.

Why have I included, between our examples, the inter-confessional conflicts? Because it is clear that the members of different conflicted traditional confessions were acting like being part of different ethnic groups, despite the fact that they belonged only to different church or region, populated by the same ethnic group.

The history is showing us that things have become clearer much later, when they tended to be normal, very close to our days, in parallel with the new protestant offensive, to which many ex-nomad and voyagers Roma have adhered. These cults have been presented and seen as being more permissive and tolerant, with a higher vocation to equalitarianism. The adhesion has been empowered by the fact that these cults have facilitated the religious ceremonies in their own language.

Things, in some cases, went very far, so far that the preachers are Roma, Romany language speakers, which encouraged the construction of Roma churches where, unfortunately, the traditional religions are not preached.