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Well-known Gypsy praises Madonna's defense of Roma

Romania's self-styled King of the Gypsies praised Madonna on Wednesday for using her "Sticky & Sweet" world tour to speak out on behalf of Gypsies.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Romania's self-styled King of the Gypsies praised Madonna on Wednesday for using her "Sticky & Sweet" world tour to speak out on behalf of Gypsies.

Last week, Madonna drew international attention by saying during a concert in Bucharest that widespread discrimination against eastern Europe's Gypsies, also known as Roma, should end. Thousands of fans responded by booing her.

"Madonna is the only international personality to have raised the problem of discrimination against the Roma in Europe," Florin Cioaba said in an interview with Agerpres, Romania's national news agency. Cioaba is one of the nation's best known Gypsy public figures. He gained the unofficial title King of all Gypsies from his father, Ion Cioaba, when he died in 1997.

On Wednesday, Cioaba said from his Transylvanian city of Sibiu that he would send Madonna an award carved in gold.

"I have never given one of these before. ... It's because Madonna is a fighter for Roma rights in Europe," he was quoted as saying.

"What Madonna did means a lot to us, it amounts to everything that Roma organizations have done all over Europe" to highlight the problems that Gypsies face, Cioaba said.

Earlier Wednesday, two Americans — a Hindu and a rabbi — urged Madonna to take up the cause of Gypsies in Europe.

Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, and Rabbi Jonathan B. Freirich said Madonna could be "effective" in focusing public opinion on the problems faced by Gypsies. The two men — both of whom work in Nevada — said the "Roma issue should be one of the highest priorities of the human rights agenda of Europe."

Zed and Freirich have both spoken out on behalf of Europe's Roma population before.

Romania has the largest number of Roma in Europe, with the population as high as 2 million. Human rights advocates say Gypsies probably suffer more humiliation and endure more discrimination than any other people on the continent.

The nomadic ethnic group lives mostly in southern and eastern Europe, and the European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency has said Gypsies face "overt discrimination" in housing, health care and education.

They often lack the official identification needed to get decent jobs.

Cioaba gained international attention in 2003 when he served as a minister during a ceremony that married his 12-year-old daughter to a 15-year-old Gypsy boy in an arranged marriage.

The wedding made headlines after Cioaba's daughter, Ana Maria, stormed out of the church.

The EU envoy to Romania at the time, Baroness Emma Nicholson, demanded that the couple be separated and said that if that wasn't done Romania could jeopardize its efforts at the time to join the European Union.

Cioaba initially protested, saying Gypsies should be allowed to follow their own customs, but he later acquiesced and the couple were separated. Until then, arranged Gypsy marriages between teenagers were relatively common, but not legally recognized.

The legal age for marriage in Romania is 18, with 16 year olds allowed to marry with parental consent.