VATICAN CITY (AP) _ When Pope John Paul II makes a choice for sainthood, it's often to make a point.

On Sunday, he draws attention to a long neglected and often despised group in Europe, beatifying a Gypsy for the first time in the history of the Roman Catholic church. Beatification is the last step before possible canonization or sainthood.

Some 3,000 Gypsies from around the continent were expected to attend the ceremony in St. Peter's Square, one of several the Vatican has dedicated to them this weekend.

On Saturday evening, Gypsies were invited to the pope's recitation of the rosary in the Vatican's main auditorium. The same hall is being turned over to Gypsy musicians and dancers on Sunday afternoon to honor the newly declared martyr, Ceferino Jimenez Malla.

Vatican officials have said the beatification of Jimenez Malla underscores the need for tolerance and understanding of Gypsies, descendants of a wandering people believed to have come from India about six centuries ago.

They live in most European countries, where they often reside in camps and trailers and face widespread discrimination. Most are Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims.

John Paul himself, on a 1995 visit to the Auschwitz death camp, recalled the ``tragic fate'' of the half-million Gypsies killed by the Nazis during World War II.

Last month, the pontiff called Jimenez Malla a ``good example of fidelity to the faith for all Christians.''

The church concedes it has neglected the spiritual care of Gypsies. ``We are in serious sin,'' said the Rev. Mario Riboldi, the main advocate of sainthood for Jimenez Malla. ``We have waited too long.''

Jimenez Malla was killed in 1936 by Republican forces during the Spanish civil war after defending an arrested priest and refusing to renounce his faith, the church says.

He was an illiterate, wandering horse dealer known for his piety and peacemaking abilities.

Jimenez Malla and four other people to receive beatification Sunday will bring the number of those beatified by John Paul to 768. In the 18 years of his papacy, this pope also has canonized 276 individuals. Both numbers exceed that of all the other popes of this century put together.

John Paul has beatified people in far-flung Catholic outposts to invigorate the faith, such as in Papua New Guinea. Closer to home, he has honored Austrian priests who died resisting Nazi oppression. He gave his stamp of approval to Opus Dei, a conservative Roman Catholic organization, by beatifying its founder.

In some cases the pope has drawn criticism. Some Jews questioned his approval of a miracle _ needed for sainthood _ attributed to Edith Stein, a Jewish-born nun who died at Auschwitz.

The critics said the Nazis killed her because of her Jewish origins, not Catholicism.

And in Prague two years ago, Protestant leaders were angered by the beatification of a 17th century priest seen as a symbol of Catholic aggression against Protestants.