VATICAN CITY — President Nicolas Sarkozy of France met yesterday with the pope and top Vatican officials in a fence-mending visit following France’s controversial crackdown on Gypsies, while a top Vatican cardinal urged France to welcome immigrants and those who have been persecuted.
Sarkozy’s government has linked Gypsies, or Roma, to crime, dismantled hundreds of their shantytowns and expelled more than 1,000 Roma in recent months, sending them home to Romania and Bulgaria.
The crackdown has been criticized by Roman Catholics, and Pope Benedict XVI appeared to weigh in on it with a subtle message about tolerance.
Speaking in French to pilgrims gathered at his summer residence Aug. 22, Benedict urged people to accept “legitimate human diversity’’ and asked parents to “educate your children about universal brotherhood,’’ a statement that was widely interpreted as being directed at France.
French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who heads the Vatican’s office for interreligious dialogue, referred to the issue during a private prayer service he celebrated in Sarkozy’s honor yesterday inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
As Sarkozy and his delegation listened, Tauran asked for prayers for France and its leaders, for the “absolute respect for life,’’ for peace, justice, “and that immigrants and those who are persecuted are welcomed.’’
Sarkozy has defended the expulsions, saying they are part of an overall crackdown on illegal immigrants and crime. Most of the Roma in France are from Romania and Bulgaria, and as EU citizens, they have a right to travel to France, but must get permission to work or live there in the long term. The government says most of the Roma are leaving voluntarily, with a small stipend from France.