The Holy Father and several other world religious leaders have recently signed a common declaration against slavery.
You might think this is a case of shutting the door long after the horse has bolted, but that is certainly not the case. In many parts of the world, slavery is still common, and all the worse for the fact that it is largely hidden away from public view.
The Catholic Herald’s report on this matter mentions an institution dedicated to help those who are trafficked and which is named after Saint Josephine Bakhita. The story of this saint which is well known, is also deeply instructive.
Here are a few points to bear in mind.
Bakhita was born in 1869 or thereabouts and was kidnapped by Arab slavers near her home in Darfur as a little girl, probably in February 1877. That date is instructive. This happened some years after the last significant campaign against slavery in the West, the American Civil War. Slavery at this time was illegal in Sudan, but clearly it was illegal in name only.
Bakhita was the victim of kidnap. Kidnapping people and false imprisonment are self-evident wrongs. And yet, as we know from reports about ISIS, this is still happening today. It is considered licit to enslave non-Muslims, as far as the ‘soldiers’ of ISIS are concerned.
Bakhita was owned by a Turkish general at one point. The Ottoman Empire made several attempts to abolish the slave trade and to liberate slaves in the nineteenth century, but slavery persisted in the Empire up till the First World War, by some accounts. Historically, the Turks were major slaveholders, and their Barbary allies terrorised the Mediterranean with their raiding. Over the centuries thousands were carried off into slavery, from as far away as Ireland. But Black Africa remained a favoured source for slaves as far as the Turks were concerned. What happened to Bakhita happened to countless thousands like her. There are still, in modern Turkey, places were people of visibly African descent live, people descended from these slaves. The same is true in Saudi Arabia, though these Black Saudis are not particularly visible.
It is quite possible, though for obvious reasons hard to quantify, as modern slaveholders are reticent about their habits, that there are many held as slaves in contemporary Saudi Arabia and Yemen to this day. This problem is made harder to deal with because the slaves themselves may well be free in name, but not in fact, and held in bondage in a way that makes their liberation very hard, namely in that they feel tied to their masters by bonds of family, tribal and religious loyalty, misplaced as these may be. Some of these modern day slaves may well be working in Britain brought here by rich employers from the Middle East, where they seem to be just like other domestic servants, only they are not. Unlike other cooks, maids, concubines, drivers or nannies, they may not be paid, and may be too frightened to leave their oppressors, or worse, not want to do so, in that they are utterly dependant on them.
These modern slaves may be ‘disguised’ as indentured labourers, workers under contract, or some other legal sleight of hand. We need to be vigilant about workers’ rights, for if we are not, we leave a neglected space in which slavery could flourish.
The saddest case of modern slavery that we know about in our own time are those poor girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, in April 2014, 217 of whom who have not been seen since. These girls are modern Bakhitas, and like Bakhita herself must have felt as a tiny frightened child, they have been largely forgotten. Their dreadful fate should motivate us all to do something about slavery today.
It is good that the religious leaders have made this declaration. Now we need actions, to enforce human rights in countries such as Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. St Bakhita, pray for us all, and in particular, pray for all those who, as you once were, have been enslaved by the wicked!
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