Up to 40,000 Roma, also know as gypsies, from across Europe are gathering in eastern France for a Protestant evangelical meeting beginning Tuesday. Religious leaders say the 12 day meeting is about meditation and prayer. But local residents and politicians are giving the Roma a cool welcome.
The mayor of the small French town of Neufchateau, Jacques Drapier, says he is not prejudiced. A decade ago, he says, he was one of the first local politicians to welcome Roma arriving for a Protestant conference.
But now he is among dozens of local lawmakers from the eastern French region of Vosges irate about the arrival of thousands of Roma in recent days.
Mr. Drapier says up to 700 Roma daily have passed through his town on their way to a Protestant evangelical meeting, which begins Tuesday at a former air base nearby. He says they camp for a day or two, using the town's electricity and water supply without paying.
Mr. Drapier says he has just filed a complaint at the local police station, after finding Neufchateau's water cistern riddled with bullets.
Last week, Mr. Drapier joined dozens of local lawmakers who petitioned for the religious meeting to be canceled. They said they feared Roma would trash their camp grounds, and resort to crime and petty violence. They also said the French government broke a promise made a decade ago not to allow another Roma reunion anytime soon. The politician's petition was ignored.
Protestant pastor Joseph Charpentier, who has organized the gathering, says the Roma are assembling only for prayer, meditation and lessons in divine healing. In interviews with the French media, pastor Charpentier accused Vosges residents of discrimination. He invited them to a dialogue with the Roma community, saying the community's doors would be open.
Despite their reputation, most Roma are not itinerant. Many settle in a single location and often adopt the religion of their host country.
Yet prejudice against Roma, members of various tribes, is hardly new. Roma suffered greatly during World War II and many were sent to Nazi concentration camps from France and other European countries.
More recently, European Union governments focused on rising trafficking of people and crime from Eastern Europe. In July, for example, French police broke up a criminal ring allegedly involved in sending handicapped Roma children to work or beg in major French towns. Also last month, French lawmakers adopted a new security law, which includes tougher measures to fight illegal immigration and itinerant travelers.
Critics argue tougher measures in France and other E.U. countries discriminate against many lawful asylum seekers, who they say are fleeing political repression in Eastern Europe.