In World Day of Peace message, Francis urges 'not to become accomplices' to human trafficking

Vatican City — Pope Francis on Wednesday made a forceful and personal plea for the end of modern-day slavery, calling on governments, communities and individuals globally "not to become accomplices" to human trafficking and exploitation in their myriad forms.

Issuing the annual papal message for the World Day of Peace, celebrated by the church each Jan. 1, Francis called slavery a "global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country."

"I urgently appeal to all men and women of good will, and all those near or far, including the highest levels of civil institutions, who witness the scourge of contemporary slavery, not to become accomplices to this evil, not to turn away from the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, who are deprived of their freedom and dignity," the pope writes in the message.

Continuing with a reference to the biblical story of the brothers Cain and Abel, Francis states bluntly: "We know that God will ask each of us: What did you do for your brother?"

Francis' message for the World Day of Peace, which is dated Dec. 8, was released by the Vatican Wednesday and will be officially sent out Jan. 1, the Catholic feast day for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Pope Paul VI first dedicated that feast to world peace in 1967, and each feast since 1968 has seen release of a papal message.

This year, Francis dedicated his message to the issue of modern-day slavery, giving it the title "No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters" in reference to St. Paul's Letter to Philemon.

The Vatican released Francis' message Wednesday during a press conference partly headlined by several women religious from across the world who have been working against human trafficking. They shared intense stories about how those they work with, especially women, have been treated.

"Try putting a hand over the mouth and scream," said Comboni Missionary Sr. Gabriella Bottani at the conference. "The cry is stifled, dumb, no one listens to it."

"This is one of the dynamics that we use in Brazil to speak of trafficking in persons," she said. "The hand represents a socioeconomic system that tries to hide the suffering it causes, making silent the cry of the victims."

Bottani, a native Italian who served for several years in Brazil, is the head of Talitha Kum, an international network of women religious fighting human trafficking.

Women religious, she said, "have chosen to welcome these uncomfortable voices because they tell us that this socioeconomic system is a huge human racket. The suffering of the victims delegitimizes the roots of power built on profit."

In his World Day of Peace message, Francis highlights in particular global laborers, migrants, prostitutes, forced soldiers and hostages who he says "are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery."

Reissuing a frequent critique he has made of the process of economic globalization -- that it leads to a "globalization of indifference" to the struggles of peoples around the world -- Francis calls for people to create a new global atmosphere.

"The globalization of indifference, which today burdens the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters, requires all of us to forge a new worldwide solidarity and fraternity capable of giving them new hope and helping them to advance with courage amid the problems of our time and the new horizons which they disclose and which God places in our hands," the pope writes.

"Let us ask ourselves, as individuals and as communities, whether we feel challenged when, in our daily lives, we meet or deal with persons who could be victims of human trafficking, or when we are tempted to select items which may well have been produced by exploiting others," Francis says at a different point in the message.

"Some of us, out of indifference, or financial reasons, or because we are caught up in our daily concerns, close our eyes to this," he states. "Others, however, decide to do something about it, to join civic associations or to practice small, everyday gestures -- which have so much merit! -- such as offering a kind word, a greeting or a smile.

"These cost us nothing but they can offer hope, open doors, and change the life of another person who lives clandestinely; they can also change our own lives with respect to this reality," he states.

Several of the women religious at the press conference Wednesday evoked the real-life drama behind the pope's words for trafficking victims.

Mary Immaculate Sr. Sharmi D'Souza, a native of India, spoke about how sisters in her congregation started a project in 2010 to rescue women who were being abducted to be trafficked out of her country.

At night, D'Souza said, she and her sisters would conduct raids on the centers where the women were held and would release them. In one of the raids, she said, they rescued 37 girls.

"We need our pastors to come along with us, our bishops our priests to support us," D'Souza said. "Because if they are with us, we can do still more."

Hospitalier of Mercy Sr. Monica Chikwe, a native of Nigeria, spoke about Nigerian women who are brought to Italy to be prostitutes. She said many of the women are tricked to make the journey, not knowing they will be forced into prostitution once they arrive.

"We have even seen that a mother can traffic her own child," Chikwe said.

The Vatican released Francis' message of peace Wednesday in nine languages, including Arabic, Polish and Russian.

Some of Francis' strongest words in the message are reserved for the situation many migrants face around the world, which the pope describes as a "dramatic odyssey" where they "experience hunger, are deprived of freedom, robbed of their possessions, or undergo physical and sexual abuse":

In a particular way, I think of those among them who, upon arriving at their destination after a gruelling journey marked by fear and insecurity, are detained in at times inhumane conditions. I think of those among them, who for different social, political and economic reasons, are forced to live clandestinely. My thoughts also turn to those who, in order to remain within the law, agree to disgraceful living and working conditions, especially in those cases where the laws of a nation create or permit a structural dependency of migrant workers on their employers, as, for example, when the legality of their residency is made dependent on their labour contract. Yes, I am thinking of "slave labour."

In his address, the pope mentions the "enormous and often silent efforts" of women religious in fighting trafficking.

But one American priest attending the Vatican press conference called on the Vatican to do more in getting priests to follow in the footsteps of women religious.

Saying the words of the women at the conference were "remarkable," Fr. M. Jeffery Bayhi said the "the absence of priests and male religious" in echoing that work "is even more noticeable."

Bayhi, who leads two parishes in Louisiana, said he had brought legislators from the state to Rome last October to meet women religious fighting human trafficking.

"Pastoral letters are great," Bayhi said. "But until it gets in the pulpit ... I'm afraid very little will be done."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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