Norway's biggest church, the (Lutheran) Church of Norway, has apologized to the nation's Romanies—once known as gypsies—for its ill treatment of their people in the past.

The apology was made November 16 at the church's general synod after being approved in a unanimous vote by church representatives. It was then accepted by national representatives of the Romany people who attended the synod.

The apology states: "The general synod 2000 apologizes and asks the Romanies for forgiveness for the injustices and infringements [of their rights] committed against their people by the church."

The number of Romanies in this Scandinavian nation is a matter of dispute, but the official representative of the nation's Romanies puts the figure at 20,000 out of a total population of 4.3 million.

Romanies in Norway were persecuted for many decades, particularly early in the 20th century. Laws were passed in an attempt to make these nomadic people settle in one place, and several institutions tried—often using harsh methods—to forcibly assimilate Romanies into Norwegian society and eradicate their cultural heritage, including their language, music, and religion.

Many of the organizations involved in the suppression of Romany culture were run by the church or managed by clergy. The most prominent was the Norwegian Mission among the Homeless which is now believed to have been responsible for at least 40 percent of forced sterilizations of Romany women, mainly in the 1930s and 1940s.

Up to 300 women were sterilized against their will, and about 1,700 children were taken away from their mothers and adopted by other families or placed in children's homes. This process continued until the 1970s.

Erling Pettersen, head of the Church of Norway's national council, told ENI: "We are going further than just giving an apology to the Romanies. We have committed ourselves to helping the Romany people in Norway to reclaim their own culture which has been threatened with extinction."

Pettersen hopes that the action by the church, to which about 85 percent of Norwegians belong, will serve as inspiration for other churches throughout Europe, especially in countries where Romanies are still persecuted or suffer from prejudice and discrimination.

"Together with representatives of the Romanies, we are setting up a framework to carry out ecumenical work in other European countries, based upon the experiences and the expertise we have gathered here in Norway, where we have been more and more engaged in reconciliation and advocacy for the past four years," Pettersen said.

Leif Bodin Larsen, head of the Romany People's National Union, told ENI: "This is a tremendous lift to our people. It shows that we are now respected in Norwegian society."

Of the church's support for the forced sterilizations, Pettersen said: "The church gave its ideological support to the social debate about racial hygiene [eugenics] which took place in Norway as in most other Western countries in the 1930s."

The reconciliation between the Romanies and the Lutheran church follows a much-disputed apology by the church two years ago, which was seen as half-hearted by the Romanies who refused to accept it and walked out of a crucial meeting with church officials. The main reason for the Romany reaction was a last-minute change in the wording of the apology from "we [the church] carry a heavy sin and much shame" to "our people carry a heavy sin and much shame." This was seen as an attempt by the church to avoid responsibility for its own wrongdoings.

The issue provoked a long and heated public debate. However, the Romany People's National Union and the Church of Norway's national council remained in dialogue and eventually reached agreement.

"Without this dialogue, which started in 1996, we would not have been able to heal the wounds from the church's abortive 1998 attempt to apologize," Leif Bodin Larsen told ENI.

In the past two years reconciliatory church services and meetings have been held throughout Norway.

Both Larsen and Pettersen said they were looking forward to working together to improve the civil and cultural rights of the Romanies.

"We have committed ourselves to helping the Romanies, for instance by lobbying the authorities," Pettersen said.

Asked by ENI whether this was a story with a happy ending, he replied: "In a way it is, but it is important to remember that the Romany people in Norway are on the brink of extinction. It will take a lot of hard work for all involved to help the Romanies reclaim their cultural identity."

Copyright © 2000 ENI

Related Elsewhere

Read more about the state church's decision to ask Romanies for forgiveness from the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Previous Christianity Today articles about Norway include:

Lutheran Church of Norway Appoints Practicing Homosexual | Oslo priest's relationship prompts lively debate in the Norwegian church. (Sept. 19, 2000)

Norwegian Prince's Moving In with Girlfriend Provokes National Debate | Crown Prince Haakon will also be head of state church on death of his father. (Sept. 18, 2000)

Born-again Christians Lead Norway (Jan. 12, 1998)

Rising from the Ashes | Congregations rebuild after Satanist arsons. (Nov. 17, 1997)