Obituary: Florin Cioaba / A leader of Romania's embattled Roma

Nov. 17, 1954-Aug. 18, 2013

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SIBIU, Romania -- The King of the Gypsies arranged an opulent wedding for his 12-year-old daughter, ordering a dozen suckling pigs and buying her a lacy gown from Italy. When she stormed out, bridesmaids in tow, the furious outcry forced Romania to stop ignoring child marriage and pushed him to take a public change of heart.

Florin Cioaba, a member of the family that has led the country's embattled minority since the 19th century, went on to become a leader who helped smooth relations with mainstream Romania and modernize Roma traditions while still preserving his community's separate culture.

Hundreds of Roma turned out to remember him at a funeral Friday in his Transylvanian hometown of Sibiu. A banner emblazoned with his crowned visage was draped across an apartment building. Stonemasons have been carving his tomb in black marble for the last week.

Mr. Cioaba, 58, died of a heart attack Sunday while on vacation in Turkey. Mourners were carrying his coffin -- partially lidded with glass and rumored to be air-conditioned -- along a four-mile route through the city.

"He cared very much about his Roma community, and he helped it a lot. He integrated it into Romanian society; he sent the members of the community to school," relative Ion Rudaru said.

But the road was bumpy. In 2003, as his 12-year-old daughter was preparing for marriage, the family openly spoke of how Ana Maria would stop going to school once she was married. That may have been why she fled the church in front of 400 astonished guests -- many of them members of the media invited to experience Roma culture. She tearfully returned a few minutes later and was duly married off.

The ensuing uproar over the wedding became a pivotal moment for Mr. Cioaba. The couple was separated after the ceremony and did not live together. Mr. Cioaba later pushed for education for Roma girls and began preaching that they should not be married until they were 16, aligning Roma tradition with Romanian law. The move earned him a reputation as a leader who cooperated with officials.

Ciprian Necula, a sociologist who studies Roma, described Mr. Cioaba as a down-to-earth, moderate leader and a mediator who used his pulpit as a Pentecostal pastor to deliver many of his messages, including urging Roma not to beg on the streets and demanding more rights for the minority. "When I greeted him 'I kiss your hand, Your Majesty,' he replied, 'Stop that nonsense!' " Mr. Necula said Friday.

He said Mr. Cioaba was strongly influenced in his policies by his wife, Marica, whom he married when both were 14, and with whom he had four children.

Before the funeral, his elder son, Dorin, was crowned "the international king of Roma," while his younger son, Daniel, was crowned "the king of Romanian Roma," succeeding him as the heads of Europe's largest Roma community.

There are officially some 620,000 Roma in Romania, but many do not declare their ethnicity due to widespread discrimination. Roma leaders say there are between 1 million and 3 million Roma in the country.

In 2010, Mr. Cioaba set up a court to mediate disputes in the Roma community with a council of 20 members. While he preserved Roma customs, he sought to keep them in line with Romania's move toward the European Union, which it joined in 2007. He counted among his friends President Traian Basescu, who this week helicoptered to Sibiu to lay a wreath at Mr. Cioaba's coffin.

But Mr. Cioaba could be critical of European leaders, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he denounced for repatriating Romanian Roma from France.

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