BLAJ, Romania (AP) — Pope Francis apologized Sunday to the Roma ethnic minority for their history of discrimination in Europe and paid homage to Romanian Catholics persecuted during communist rule as he wrapped up his third and final day with a message of forgiveness.
Francis reached out to the minorities of Transylvania during a deeply symbolic visit to Romania about 20 years after St. John Paul II made the first-ever papal trip to the majority Orthodox country.
In his final stop Sunday before heading back to the Vatican, Francis visited a community of Roma, also known as Gypsies, in a newly built Catholic church that was so small organizers asked the clergy to leave to make more room for Gypsy families to get in.
There, Francis apologized for the "many experiences of discrimination, segregation and mistreatment experienced by your communities," a reference to the second-class status of the Roma minority in Romania and throughout Europe, where Roma are more likely to be poor, uneducated and at risk of harassment, according to European Union studies.
Francis recently met with members of Roma communities in the diaspora at the Vatican and knows well the hardships they face.
"History tells us that Christians too, including Catholics, are not strangers to such evil," Francis said, in an apparent reference to World War II-era deportation of Roma along with Romanian Jews that is commemorated by a Holocaust memorial in Bucharest.
"I would like to ask your forgiveness for this," Francis said. "I ask forgiveness - in the name of the Church and of the Lord - and I ask forgiveness of you. For all those times in history when we have discriminated, mistreated or looked askance at you ... and were unable to acknowledge you, to value you and to defend you in your uniqueness."
Francis has made it a point to use his trips and meetings with foreign leaders to ask forgiveness for past injustices, just as John Paul did. He apologized to indigenous peoples for the colonial-era conquest of the Americas while in Bolivia and during a Vatican meeting with the president of Rwanda, apologized for the failures of Catholics in the Rwandan genocide.
Roma are often among the poorest and least educated citizens in Central Europe. Neighboring Hungary, for example, has been warned by the EU about the discrimination of Roma children in education. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reported last year that 80 percent of the Roma population in Europe is at risk for poverty, and that hate-motivated crime and harassment were preventing their inclusion in society.
Francis began the day by beatifying seven Greek-Catholic bishop martyrs in Blaj, a stronghold of the Greek-Catholic Church that was outlawed during communism. The seven bishops had been arrested and imprisoned between 1950 and 1970 for adhering to their faith.
Francis held them up as models for the Romanian faithful today, saying they "gave their lives to oppose an illiberal ideological system."
"These lands know well how greatly people suffer when an ideology or a regime takes over, setting itself up as a rule for the very life and faith of people, diminishing and even eliminating their ability to make decisions, their freedom and their room for creativity," he said.
He warned that new ideologies were threatening Romanian families today — an apparent reference to gender issues, gay marriage and other secular trends that Francis has previously blasted as Western "ideological colonization" over others.
The hymn-filled Mass followed the Byzantine rite of the Greek-Catholic church, which is loyal to Rome. The liturgy itself was celebrated by a Greek-Catholic bishop, but it marked the first time that Francis had presided over an eastern rite liturgy as pope, the Vatican said.
It was celebrated on the symbolic "Field of Liberty," a huge expanse east of Blaj that was the site of an important nationalist rally in 1848. A century later, communist leaders marking the anniversary at the field demanded that Greek-Catholics join the Orthodox church.
Many refused, and thousands of priests were incarcerated in communist prisons, including the seven being beatified Sunday. The Catholic Church's property was seized. The refusal of the Orthodox church to return those Catholic assets remains a source of tension between the two today.
"This is a holy day for all Catholics," said 50-year old Emanuela Canta, who arrived in the Blaj field early Sunday to get a spot. "I wish we could share the same kind of faith they (the martyrs) had. I wish God could strengthen us and our belief."
Because the seven bishops were declared martyrs, who died out of hatred for the Catholic faith, the Vatican didn't need to confirm a miracle attributed to their intercession for them to be beatified; a miracle is needed for them to be made saints.
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome.