Gypsies take refuge in ancient Rome church

By Alessandra Rizzo
Associated Press / April 23, 2011

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ROME—Some 150 Gypsies whose camp was dismantled have taken refuge in one of Rome's most ancient basilicas, creating a standoff Saturday with city officials trying to get them out.

Italy is struggling to deal with hundreds of Gypsies who live in illegal trailer settlements on the city's outskirts. Weeks ago, four children died in their sleep as a blaze tore through a shack in an illegal camp in Rome -- prompting Pope Benedict XVI to call for more solidarity with the Roma.

The Gypsies entered St. Paul's Outside the Walls, one of Christianity's most ancient churches, on Friday to protest city plans to send the women and children, but not men, to shelters, temporarily breaking up families.

TV footage showed men and women walking along the church's aisles, some carrying plastic bags, and children playing and running around, or resting against the basilica's imposing columns.

Many left the basilica Friday night to allow Good Friday ceremonies marking crucifixion of Jesus to go ahead; others stayed inside to watch.

The 150-strong group, including children and babies, were allowed to spend the night in two rooms adjacent to the basilica's cloister, the ANSA news agency said. On Saturday, Catholic charity Caritas sent a truck full of crackers, biscuits and water.

It wasn't clear if they would be allowed to spend another night inside the basilica complex. Some people who had gone outside for work or to procure food hadn't been allowed back inside.

Law enforcement officials were patrolling the main entrance to the basilica to allow the faithful and pilgrims to enter and exit, ANSA said.

Rome's city hall offered euro500 ($730) to individual Gypsies, many of whom are Romanian nationals, who agreed to be repatriated. But only about a dozen Roma had accepted, according to Italian news reports.

City hall promised that families would be reunited in a Gypsy camp in a few weeks. But the Roma asked that entire families, including men, be sent to the shelter.

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno insisted that "the solution cannot be, as is demanded by many Gypsy families and various association, that we offer an accommodation to these families."

Alemanno said this would send a signal of "indiscriminate acceptance" that might result in a further increase in the number of homeless people in the Italian capital. Currently, there are 22,000 homeless people between refugees, Gypsies, asylum-seekers and others, Alemanno said.

"We cannot run the risk of turning Rome into a gigantic shantytown," Alemanno said.

As night fell, charity groups were preparing to send tents in the area in front the basilica in case the Roma would not be allowed back in, reports said.

When the four children -- three boys and a girl, aged 3 to 11 -- died in February, Alemanno promised that illegal camps would be torn down and new, safe ones would be built. Many of the Roma in the Italian capital are minors. top stories on Twitter

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