From forced labour in mines and sweat shops to domestic work and prostitution, international human trafficking serves a wide scope of illegal activities, channelled through criminal organizations, taking migrants on long dreadful journeys.

Nearly 36 million people throughout the world today are in what is considered “modern slavery”, according to the most recent Global Slavery Index, developed by the Australian Walk Free Foundation.

By making a surprise visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa in July 2013, where migrants reach the shores of the European Union, along with trafficked people, Pope Francis has taken the lead in putting this often underestimated issue on the global agenda and in involving interfaith dialogue.

Human trafficking is thus becoming a shared concern for religious leaders, who have taken a common initiative to raise awareness among business and policy-makers against “modern slavery”. First steps have been taken under a new framework, set up in March this year, called the ‘Global Freedom Network’. Hosted by the Holy See, it is yet mostly funded by Australian billionaire, Andrew Forrest.

Since a first symposium held at the Vatican in November 2013 gathering governments, NGOs, academics and religious experts from worldwide, Anglican followed by Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu leaders have joined the campaign. The official kick-off was given by Pope Francis who headed a signing ceremony organized on December 2nd 2014, known as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, was present as well as chief rabbi David Rosen and high representatives of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University of Cairo and of other muslim leaders, among other faith leaders. Each delivered speeches. Others sent support messages through video, such as the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriach Bartholomew.

From dialogue to action

Beyond the impressive pictures of this one-day gathering, beyond the shared commitment to overcome human trafficking within a seven years’ time, by 2020, a striking feature of this event is how interreligious dialogue is turning more into interreligious action focusing on great human concerns and hardships, such as trafficking.

“We are not just talking about theology but religious experience”, explained Pope Francis to the reporting press on his return flight from Turkey just before the agreement was signed, expressing the need for a “qualitative leap” in interreligious dialogue.

Earlier in Turkey, the President of religious affairs, Dr Mehmet Görmez, put more bluntly in his statement to Pope Francis : “Today men of religion should put aside their discussions on their claims of their perception of the truth under the name of dialogue on a theological dimension as if it was their mission and should concentrate on a concerted effort regarding” vital world issues, namely violence, poverty and environmental issues.

The agreement set against human trafficking could thus serve as a new-kind of interreligious cooperation for other issues. Ones where faith leaders are not expected but may play a meaningful role in raising awareness. At the Vatican, some are now considering setting up an interreligious summit on climate change before the intergovernmental conference in Paris in December 2015.

“Religious faith can be a powerful motivating force inspiring individual and community action both spiritually and practically”, writes the Global Freedom Network about the purpose of enrolling faith leaders against human trafficking : “Global faith leaders, by their words and deeds, may form the faith-inspired will and effort by men and women to overcome the manmade evil of modern slavery.”

A less elitist approach

Condemning together acts where basic human dignity is dramatically at stake seems more obvious for faith leaders than getting through tough theological debates. As an example, just weeks after Pope Francis had declared human trafficking “a crime against humanity”, a Fatwa was issued in December 2013 by Al Azhar in Egypt, declaring modern slavery and human trafficking to be in contradiction to the teachings of the Quran.

But agreeing on exact wording can turn to be tricky, even on such topics. Anglicans wanted the agreement signed at the Vatican on December 2nd to specify “forced prostitution”, whilst Catholics preferred to consider “prostitution” as such. The document mentions “forced labour and prostitution”.

A last important feature of this new kind of interreligious cooperation is that it is meant to be widespread and not to remain at elitist level, as theological debates often tend to be. Not only faith leaders but, along with them, believers themselves are called to participate in fighting human trafficking in their own community. This gets down to consumer behaviour, supply chain proofing to promote ethical purchasing arrangements or advocating for law reforms, as stated by the Global Freedom Network.

The challenge now is to spread out this cooperation at ground level. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus will of course continue wearing religious signs of their own but they can also share and show out the same concern for wearing clothes or using devices that are slave-free proof. Just recognizing this could pave the way for further and deeper understanding between religions.

Author: Sébastien Maillard, Rome Correspondent of French daily La Croix, Member of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faiths

Image: Suspected victims of human trafficking pray at a government shelter in Takua Pa district of Phang Nga October 17, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha