On an unseasonably warm February day in Bulgaria, a speeding vehicle dodges gaping potholes and belching trucks as it heads into the heavily wooded mountains outside Sofia, the East European nation's capital city.

The driver, Pavel Ignatov, pastor of a large, evangelical congregation in Sofia, heads off on a wild ride through the countryside to attend Sunday morning services at a church that he founded for Gypsies in the village of Samokov.

"I love these people," says Ignatov of the Gypsies. It is a remarkable comment, given that Gypsies are a widely despised minority, making up about 10 percent of the country's population. Tsigani, a Slavic name for Gypsies, means "untouchable."

Bulgaria is one of the poorest areas of Europe, and the Gypsies are frequently the poorest Bulgarians, living mostly in isolated ghettos on the fringes of the largest cities. Gypsies, who trace their heritage to India, have experienced centuries of discrimination, including the Gypsy Holocaust during the Second World War, in which about 500,000 died.

A DESPISED MINORITY

Ignatov himself is keenly aware of how it feels to be part of a hated minority, and that awareness deeply motivates his ministry to Gypsies. Members of his denomination, the Church of God, which has Methodist roots and is not affiliated with the Church of God in the United States, were sharply persecuted during the communist years, which ended in 1989. During part of that time, Ignatov was punished for his evangelistic activities with internal exile to a small, rural village.

Ignatov's work among the Gypsies first began at that troubled time. "A well-known Gypsy musician repented in our church," explains Ignatov. "After that, our church's image was improved in the eyes of the Gypsies." ...

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