Religious leaders ink global pact to end slavery

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Pope Francis, center, and from left, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Venerable Bhikkhuni Thich Nu Chan Khong, Her Holiness Mata Amritanandamayi and Undersecretary of State of Al Azhar Alsharif, Abbas Abdalla Abbas Soliman, pose after the signing a joint Declaration of Religious Leaders against Modern Slavery, at the Vatican, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. Religious leaders from a half-dozen faiths have signed on to a new Vatican initiative to end modern-day slavery by 2020, declaring that human trafficking, forced labor and prostitution are crimes against humanity. Photo: L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO

VATICAN CITY (Christian Examiner) – A global movement to end slavery that started in 2012 with Australian businessman Andrew Forrest hit a high point Tuesday, Dec. 2, when leaders from seven major world religions gathered in Rome to sign a declaration condemning slavery and urging the world to action.

On hand were high-ranking officials from Anglican, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Eastern Orthodox faiths. It is the first time in history that global Christian and Islamic leaders are actively working together, said Forrest, a billionaire philanthropist.

"There's a sense of history here and we are simply the facilitators," Forrest told the Sydney Morning Herald in an article today. "[The religious leaders] needed to show forgiveness and love to come here. Any one of them could have derailed this entire meeting ....

"It's dawning on the world how vicious and how severe the global slavery problem is," Forrest continued in remarks after the signing ceremony. "It was a common and wonderful campaign which all the faith leaders could agree upon. We were really able to develop that sense of common identity, of protectors of the least on earth that led to the miracle of this day: Shia and Sunni, Islam and Christianity, and the other faiths. This is the start of a journey, the first step."

The signing of the Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery marks the beginning of a five-year anti-slavery push in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples throughout the world, using the message that slavery is forbidden by God. Signatories committed to work within their faith communities to free an estimated 35 million victims of slavery and end the practice worldwide by 2020.

Human trafficking is prevalent even in the United States, with about 50,000 people enslaved each year. But experts estimate that globally, 600,000 to 800,000 persons are trafficked annually and that five countries account for 61 percent of those enslaved: India, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Russia.

The joint statement is a three-paragraph document:

"We, the undersigned, are gathered here today for a historic initiative to inspire spiritual and practical action by all global faiths and people of goodwill everywhere to eradicate modern slavery across the world by 2020 and for all time.

"In the eyes of God, each human being is a free person, whether girl, boy, woman or man, and is destined to exist for the good of all in equality and fraternity. Modern slavery, in terms of human trafficking, forced labor and prostitution, organ trafficking and any relationship that fails to respect the fundamental conviction that all people are equal and have the same freedom and dignity, is a crime against humanity.

"We pledge ourselves here today to do all in our power, within our faith communities and beyond, to work together for the freedom of all those who are enslaved and trafficked so that their future may be restored. Today we have the opportunity, awareness, wisdom, innovation and technology to achieve this human and moral imperative."

Forrest founded Walk Free Foundation in 2012 to mobilize a grass roots movement to end modern slavery after his daughter went on a mission trip to Nepal when she was 15. She returned on a family vacation two years later to discover that youngsters she had met previously had been captured in modern-day slavery.

The Walk Free Foundation worked with Roman Catholic, Anglican and Muslim leaders to form the Global Freedom Network that organized the joint religious meeting in Rome.