Imer and Senada Omerovic, a Bosnian couple who have lived in Italy since 1992, have been the victims of mob protests since they moved this week with their 12 children to a small apartment provided by the city council in Casal Bruciato, an eastern suburb of the Italian capital.
The couple, who waited two years for social housing, have received violent threats from neighbours and neofascist activists who argue that priority should be given to Italian families. Prosecutors are investigating several people for inciting racial hatred and violence, including a man who threatened to rape a Roma woman as she tried to enter the building with a child in her arms.
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Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
"I suffer, because this is not civilized, it's not," said Francis, who had a pre-arranged meeting with some 500 Roma and Sinti at the Vatican on Thursday before inviting the Omerovics to join him at the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in south-east Rome. Police officers had to escort the family part of the way for their own safety.
"It's true that there are second-class citizens. But real second-class citizens are those who reject people... who live with a broom in their hands to chase away others," the Pope said. He urged the Omerovics to "resist".
"For now we're not going anywhere: we're waiting for schools to go back in September and then we'll weigh up what to do," Imer Omerovic told the press.
"We don't want to leave this home, but it's crucial that the neighbourhood accepts us. It would be terrible, and above all dangerous, for our children to go to school in a neighbourhood where we're not welcome. They've already been targeted, insulted and spat upon, and we don't want it to happen again."
Sinti and Roma have lived in Europe for centuries, with Sinti referring to a traditionally itinerant ethnic group from Western and Central Europe, while Roma are of eastern and southeast European origin.
Over half the 170,000 or so Roma and Sinti people in Italy are Italian citizens with regular jobs and houses, but hate crimes against the poorest are rife. Threats against Roma and Sinti people have increased under Italy's populist interior minister Matteo Salvini, who has called for a special census of Roma and for all non-Italian Roma to be expelled from the country.
The protests in Casal Bruciato are believed to have been stirred up partly by supporters of the neofascist party CasaPound. The party was also involved in riots in another Rome suburb last month that greeted the resettlement of some 60 Roma people, and which ended with the council splitting up the Roma group and moving them into other accommodation around the city.
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