Pope Celebrates Diversity at Mass in Multi-Ethnic Romania


Pope Francis on the  second day of a visit to Romania celebrated diversity at a mass Saturday attended by tens of thousands of people in a predominantly ethnic-Hungarian part of the Transylvania region seen as the highlight of his trip.

The open-air mass was keenly awaited for reasons of both faith and national identity in majority Orthodox Romania, where believers suffered under the post-war decades of Communist rule.

For Catholics in the "Szeklerland" area, where some 600,000 ethnic-Hungarians comprise a majority of the population, the pope's visit was seen as welcome recognition of their identity.

Under dark skies, a sea of colourful rain coats formed around the hillside of the Sumuleu Ciuc shrine as Francis arrived by popemobile.

- Golden rose -

In his mass, Francis celebrated "a people whose wealth is seen (in) its myriad faces, cultures, languages and traditions" and called on pilgrims not to be "afraid to mingle, to embrace and to support each other".

"To go on pilgrimage is to participate in that somewhat chaotic sea of people that can give us a genuine experience of fraternity, to be part of a caravan that can together, in solidarity, create history," he said.

Up to 100,000 people were estimated to have attended the ceremony, which saw the Argentinian pontiff present a golden rose at the large wooden replica of the Madonna -- a tradition for popes visiting major Marian shrines.

"For us, worshippers, it's a very beautiful thing to have the pope among us. It's a once-in-a-life-time chance," Iosif Orban, a pilgrim, told AFP.

Another man, Alexandru Miron, said he walked one and a half hours through pouring rain and mud early Saturday to see the pontiff.

"Was it worth it? Yes," he said.

- Pilgrims from abroad -

Most pilgrims were Romania-based ethnic-Hungarians, but organisers had said some 25,000 would also travel from Hungary itself, as well as from Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine, all countries with sizeable Hungarian communities.

Having come by train, car and bicycle, thousands of people started gathering late Friday with churches in the nearby small town of Miercurea Ciuc, 215 kilometres (135 miles) north of Bucharest, staying open all night to accomodate pilgrims.

Between religious chants in Hungarian, they expressed their hopes for the 82-year-old's visit.

"If I meet the pope, I will tell him that Transylvania must be autonomous," Zoltan, 60, who came from western Hungary and makes an annual pilgrimage to Sumuleu Ciuc, told AFP.

Hungary's nationalist premier, Viktor Orban, who did not attend Saturday's mass, has been building ties with the diaspora since he returned to power in 2010 as part of a so-called "national policy" that is seen warily in Romania as an effort to extend Budapest's reach.

Olah Zoltan, a volunteer helping to organise the mass, said he wanted more recognition for ethnic Hungarians, such as for them being able to use Hungarian instead of Romanian as their language. 

"We want greater respect for the rights of the Hungarian minority," said the theology professor, who works in the central town of Cluj-Napoca. 

Francis' mass Saturday was translated both into Romanian and Hungarian.

- Trip across the country -

Over the weekend, the pope was to continue his journey across the country. Later Saturday, he was to arrive in Iasi in northeastern Romania to meet youngsters.

Many television channels broadcast his three-day visit live.

Francis, on arrival in the capital Friday, praised the "sacrifices" of Romanian emigrants -- millions have moved abroad in search of better work opportunities -- and urged the faithful to reject "a culture of hate" following nationalist gains in recent European parliament elections.

In Bucharest, thousands had lined the streets to wave to Francis in his pope mobile and filled two cathedrals.

He also had a private meeting with Orthodox Patriarch Daniel despite strained relations, and they prayed alongside each other -- one in Latin and the other in Romanian.

Twenty years earlier, then-pope John Paul II visited Romania, receiving a warm welcome for his perceived role in the fall of Communism.