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Roma and non-Roma live together in a Hungarian village

by Jacqueline Ruyak with photographs by Balazs Gardi/VII Network

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Hodász is different,” said Father Tibor Egri, a Greek Catholic priest in this village of some 3,500 people in northeastern Hungary.

What makes Hodász exceptional is not its assorted parishes – Greek and Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant – or its mixed population of ethnic Hungarians and Roma, commonly called Gypsies. Rather, it is how these distinct groups have forged a cohesive community.

“People here get along easily,” Father Egri continued. “Many Hungarians associate the Roma with criminal activities. And the media reinforce the stereotypes and feed the prejudices.

“Roma here,” he added, “tend to be more ’Hungarian,’ which makes it easier.”

With up to 800,000 Roma now living in the country – between 5 and 10 percent of the overall population – Hungary typifies the Romany experience as a disenfranchised minority and yet offers hope for greater Romany social and political inclusion.

For generations, Hungary’s Roma have endured institutionalized discrimination in education, housing and employment. Societal prejudices run deep as well; hate crimes against Roma remain relatively common. But this central European nation’s Roma enjoy better legal protection and greater representation in government than most Romany populations in other European nations of the former Communist bloc.

Roma, who now make up nearly half the village population, have lived in Hodász at least since 1820, when local authorities recorded the first Romany baptism.

As in the rest of Europe, Roma now constitute the fastest-growing ethnic group in Hungary; one out of every five or six newborns is Roma. In Hodász, however, all villagers tend to have small families, which usually include no more than two children.

“It’s a kind of acculturation,” said Father Egri, who has served for four years as curate at the Greek Catholic Church of the Ascension, the spiritual center of the village’s estimated 400 Greek Catholic Roma.

But Ascension, one of the 145 parishes of the Eparchy of Hajdúdorog, has assumed many of the cultural traditions typically associated with the Roma while maintaining its Greek Catholic ethos. Music and dance play a central role in Romany culture. At Ascension, Romany singers, guitarists and other instrumentalists have replaced traditional Greek Catholic plainchant.

“Maybe it’s in our genes,” suggested cantor Sandor Lakatos.

“We recognize each other by our way of singing and dancing.”

The Romany Greek Catholic parish also celebrates the liturgies in Lovari – the local Romany dialect. A key part of Romany identity, most Roma in Hodász speak it as a first language. “We speak Romany first of all, so we think in a Romany way even when speaking Hungarian,” said Mr. Lakatos.

A vital force in the cultural life of Hodász’s Roma, the Church of the Ascension reaches out to the entire village community through its St. Elijah Shelter and Day Care Center. Run on a shoestring budget, the facility manages to offer a host of essential social services at a time when state-run programs are being cut.

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Tags: Hungary Central Europe Hungarian Greek Catholic