SIBIU, Romania (AP) — The "King of the Gypsies" was being laid to rest Friday in a ceremony fitting his status.
Florin Cioaba, a member of the family that has led the embattled minority in Romania since the 19th century, was an activist who pushed for Roma rights and championed education for impoverished children after seeing his own 12-year-old daughter storm out of a church to avoid an arranged marriage.
Thousands turned out for a funeral to remember him. A banner emblazoned with his crowned visage was draped across an apartment building in his Transylvanian hometown of Sibiu. Stonemasons have been carving his tomb in black marble for the last week.
Cioaba died of a heart attack Sunday at age 58 while on vacation in Turkey. Mourners were carrying his coffin — partially lidded with glass and rumored to be air conditioned — along a seven-kilometer (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," Ion Rudaru, a relative told The Associated Press.
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.
Cioaba himself took over the mantle in 1997 from his father Ion Cioaba, who was deported during the Holocaust to the Soviet Union. A Pentecostal pastor, he made international headlines in 2003 when his daughter refused to get married. Criticism from a European Union envoy led the leader to encourage Roma to marry later.
However, he could be critical of European leaders, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy whom he denounced for repatriating Romanian Roma from France.
Roma sociologist Ciprian Necula described Cioaba as a moderate leader and a mediator who used his pulpit to deliver many of his messages, including urging Roma not to beg on the streets, calling on them to wait until age 16 to be married and demanding more rights for the minority.
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 one and three million Roma in Romania.
Mutler reported from Bucharest, Romania.