The Church of the Roma – Philip Jenkins

Image courtesy Christian Century

Philip Jenkins writes in Church of the Roma….

For centuries, the religious character of the Roma was somewhat mysterious. They tended to adopt the religion of the societies in which they lived, adding their own distinctive customs and traditions. Some of these offered curious traces of their Indian past. The Romani word for cross or crucifix,trushul, recalls the Hindu name for Shiva’s trident, the trishula. In Catholic Europe, Romani have long been faithful Catholics. They have a fervent devotion to the dark-skinned St. Sarah, allegedly a companion of the biblical Three Marys—though modern activists claim she is a form of the Hindu dark goddess Kali. In Turkey and much of the Balkans, most Roma are avowedly Muslim.

For an outsider—the typical gadoj—this chameleon quality suggested that Roma faith was a matter of convenience and involved no sincere conviction. In modern times, though, the growth of evangelical and charismatic Christianity has been a dominant fact of Roma life, even in countries where that faith tends to distance them even more from the social mainstream.

Protestant expansion is obvious in Bulgaria, where the Romani make up 5 to 10 percent of the population. For centuries, most Roma accepted Orthodox Christianity. Western Protestant missions made inroads in the early 20th century, and Romani translations of the Gospels date from 1912. But the real explosion followed the collapse of Bulgarian communism in the 1990s and the ensuing economic crisis. In these grim years, the Roma began a mass conversion to Pentecostal faith, drawing converts from both Orthodox and Muslim Romani communities.

Pentecostalism had an overwhelming appeal for marginal groups traditionally excluded or condemned by mainstream society. Today, Pentecostals claim a sizable majority of Bulgaria’s 800 Romani Protestant churches, and church planting continues apace. The churches themselves are purely Roma in their membership and leadership.

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