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COSTESTI, Romania – Getting down on their knees, hundreds of Gypsies kiss the relics of an Orthodox saint at a hillside monastery for their annual celebration of the birthday of St. Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Every autumn, Gypsies — also known as Roma — flock to worship at the 15th-century Bistrita monastery in southern Romania, which holds the relics of St. Gregory.
Roma file past Gregory's tomb, on their knees or on crutches, kissing and touching it in the belief they will receive a blessing. Others place money on a church icon or slip banknotes into the priest's prayer book.
Since communism ended, Roma have gathered at the monastery for the Sept. 8 religious holiday. Gregory, who was born in the 8th century, is associated with healing and is a protector from fire and drought.
The festival is an occasion for Roma to display their wealth and feast lavishly. Romania has more than 1 million Roma, many of whom are poor and face prejudice.
This year's festival was more modest. After the service, families mingled on a hillside near the monastery and slaughtered roast suckling pigs and sheep. They danced and played traditional music loudly.
Some use the occasion to make wedding arrangements for their young sons and daughters. Roma witches perform special luck-bringing rituals they claim will help unmarried women find a good husband or bring good health.
The festival is also a market, with huge piles of secondhand clothes and electronic gadgets laid out for sale.