Modern Bondage: Slavery Is Very Much Alive in Today's World

Wednesday, 27 Aug 2014 07:54 PM

By Mark Gordon, Aleteia.org

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From Nigerian Schoolgirls to Sex Trafficking in the US, the Total Number Would Fill California

As anyone who has studied history knows, the man-made evils the world faces today — war, terrorism, abortion, poverty, and the rest — share an ancient provenance. Technology can increase or diminish the scale of these evils, and in some cases it can even introduce novel expressions of them, but on a fundamental level we moderns wrestle with the same moral pathologies, both personal and social, as our ancestors.

Truly, "What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun!" (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

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One enduring evil, present at all times and in every form of human civilization, is slavery. In May 2014, the world was awakened to the reality of modern slavery when Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist terror group allied with al-Qaida, kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls (mostly Christian) in Chibok, Nigeria. According to Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, the girls were to be sold into sexual slavery.

"Slavery is allowed in my religion," claimed Shekau, "and I shall capture people and make them slaves."

As of this writing, the fate of the Chibok schoolgirls is unknown, and every day that passes makes it less likely that they will ever be restored to their families.

Many Muslim leaders reject Shekau's claim about the permissibility of slavery under Islam, but Boko Haram isn't the only Islamist organization engaging in such practices. Reports have recently surfaced that the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) group has been abducting and selling Christian and Yazidi women into slavery. According to the Tunisia Daily, ISIS recently sold 700 Yazidi women at a public auction in Mosul.

Jemaah Islamiah, the Islamist terror organization that operates in the Malaysian and Indonesian archipelago, also engages in the slave trade, as do the Janjaweed militias supported by the Sudanese government in Darfur. In all these places, most women "sold at market" are forced into marriages, kept as concubines for Muslim men, or made to work as domestic servants. Abduction and slavery by radical Islamist groups often includes the horrific practice of female genital mutilation.

The involvement of Islamic terror groups in the slave trade gets the headlines, but slavery is a much wider modern phenomenon that most of us can imagine. Late last year, the "Walk Free Foundation," an Australian anti-slavery group, published its first annual Global Slavery Index, which ranks "162 countries around the world, based on a combined measure of three factors: estimated prevalence of modern slavery by population, a measure of child marriage, and a measure of human trafficking in and out of a country."

The rankings closely mirror the findings of the U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Human Persons report.

According to the index, there are nearly 30 million persons in bondage around the world. That's a population equal to the state of California. If those 30 million people were their own country, it would be the 40th largest nation on Earth, just ahead of Nepal.

The definition of slavery used in the index is broad. It includes outright chattel slavery, in which persons are bought and sold as property; forced labor, in which persons are threatened to perform work; and human trafficking, which suggests some initial level of abduction or deception, followed by coercion.

The countries with the highest prevalence of slavery are Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Moldova, Benin, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and Gabon.

Look closely and you can see that five of these nations are clustered in the central portion of West Africa. Dig a little deeper to discover that Islam is the majority religion in four of the five. This, along with Nigeria itself, is Boko Haram's market, and it is likely that at least some of the Chibok schoolgirls are now in bondage in one of these countries.

In terms of absolute numbers, 10 countries account for 76 percent of today's slaves: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. This is a list of nations that stretches across geographic, cultural, and religious boundaries, suggesting the problem of slavery isn't confined to any one region or faith.

The United States scored well on the index — 134 of 162 — but there are still an estimated 60,000 slaves toiling here. According to a Justice Department profile of human trafficking cases between 2008 and 2010, 82 percent of trafficked persons were in the sex trade, while the remainder were pressed into other forms of labor bondage.

For its part, the Catholic Church today is unambiguous in its denunciation of slavery, forced labor, and every form of human trafficking as a grave evil.

"Human trafficking is a crime against humanity," said Pope Francis in an address to Vatican ambassadors last December. "We must unite our efforts to free victims and stop this crime that's become ever more aggressive, that threatens not just individuals, but the foundational values of society."

The Holy Father weighed in again on the topic last April at a Vatican-sponsored conference titled "Combating Human Trafficking," which he described as "an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity."

Then, during his recent visit to South Korea, the Pope met with seven former "comfort women," dragooned into sexual servitude during World War II.

Of course, the Church's view of slavery has evolved in the two millennia since her founding, which took place in the midst of an age and civilization where slavery was ubiquitous. Nevertheless, from very early on, the Christian community exhibited a fundamental unease with slavery, at least as it was practiced in the Roman world.

St. Paul may have instructed slaves to obey their masters, but he also instructed masters to treat their slaves with kindness. Many early Christians held slaves, but many others freed them upon conversion. Over the centuries, slavery reappeared in Christian civilization, but eventually it was Christian teaching that overwhelmed the practice, rendering it largely nonexistent in the West, except as a hidden crime.

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Finally, the Vatican recently announced that Pope Francis selected slavery as the theme of the next World Day of Peace, to be celebrated on Jan. 1, 2015. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace announced that "Slaves no more, but brothers and sisters" will be the title of the message for the 48th World Day of Peace.

"Many people think that slavery is a thing of the past," said a note from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. "In fact, this social plague remains all too real in today's world. Last year's Message for 1 January 2014 was dedicated to brotherhood … Slavery deals a murderous blow to this fundamental fraternity, and so to peace as well. Peace can only exist when each human being recognizes every other person as a brother or sister with the same dignity."

Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of "Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim." He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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