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Pope receives gypsies at Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI heard Gypsies recount their way of life at a first-ever papal audience for them at the Vatican today, decried their persecution by the Nazis during the Second World War and called on Europe to help end centuries of rejection for the Roma people.

About 2,000 Catholic Gypsies gathered in the Vatican's auditorium to hear Pope Benedict speak.

"Your history is complex, and, in some periods, painful," he told them. "You are a people who, over the past centuries, never held nationalistic ideologies, never aspired to possess a land or dominate other peoples. You have remained without a homeland and have ideally considered the entire (European) continent as your home."

He lamented that for centuries they have known "the bitter taste of not being welcome".

Pope Benedict told how during his pilgrimage to Poland in 2006 he prayed before a plaque at Auschwitz marking the "barbaric" killing of thousands of Gypsies in Nazi death camps - "a drama that is still barely recognised and of which it is difficult to measure its proportions".

"The European conscience cannot forget such sorrow," the Pope said. "Never again may your people be the object of oppression, rejection and disparagement.

The encounter began with four Gypsies describing their world for the Pontiff. Benedict noted that many Gypsies are no longer nomads "but seek stability with new expectations", including dignified housing and education for their children.

He called on Europe's institutions "to take action to accompany (them) on this path" towards a better life.

How or whether to integrate Gypsies into neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces has been a question that has vexed many politicians in Europe. Rome's mayor has vowed to rid the city of unauthorised camps of shanty homes and trailers, on the outskirts, and some of these areas have been razed, with their occupants forced to find shelter elsewhere.

The Vatican has a special office dedicated to the pastoral care of migrants and itinerant peoples.

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