ROME – After having tried his hand last month at promoting peace in the Middle East, Pope Francis this week waded into another of the world’s seemingly intractable problems, in this case a booming illegal industry of trafficking in human beings.
On Tuesday, senior papal advisors took part in a session in Rome with American anti-trafficking experts designed as a lead-in to the first United Nations-sponsored “International Day Against Human Trafficking” on Wednesday.
The session built on a new anti-trafficking foundation recently launched by Pope Francis along with Anglican and Muslim leaders called the “Global Freedom Network,” which is funded by Australian philanthropist and mining magnate Andrew Forrest.
Its aim is to engage religious groups in combating a 21st century version of human slavery that’s estimated to involve 27 million to 30 million people, and to generate $32 billion in annual revenue.
A senior papal aide on Tuesday described the fight as among Francis’ key priorities, and said the pontiff isn’t daunted by the magnitude of the challenge.
“Pope Francis is not good at keeping quiet, or staying put,” said Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, a fellow Argentine who heads a pontifical academy and is also the pope’s representative to the anti-trafficking network.
“He’s a hard worker, and he’s strongly committed to bring an end to this nefarious industry,” Sánchez said.
He said Francis is aware that many people consider human trafficking to be “an enormous, energy-consuming problem that simply cannot be resolved,” but he said the pope has issued clear marching orders.
“We search for the solution, and we don’t stop until we find it and apply it,” Sánchez said.
Francis is so committed, he added, that he asks every world leader who visits him at the Vatican to join the effort.
Tuesday’s event featured a video conference with Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca of the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and was co-sponsored by the US Embassy to the Holy See.
CdeBaca, a decorated former federal prosecutor, thanked “priests, nuns, not just Catholics but also Anglicans and Baptists, for being people whom victims trust.”
Antonia Stampalija, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Freedom Network, said its goal is to involve every world religion in the campaign.
“Many NGO’s and Catholic movements have been fighting modern slavery for decades,” Stampalija said. “They have the experience of years in the trenches. We want to make their experience public so others can learn from it.”
In addition to Francis, the network has been joined by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Mosque and University in Cairo, Egypt, sometimes considered the Vatican of the Sunni Muslim world.
Sir David John Moxon, a representative of the Anglican Church, said the Global Freedom Network builds upon a history of religious leadership in anti-slavery efforts.
“A religion relinquishing people from slavery is not new,” Moxon said. “What’s new is the joint thinking, the networking and the constant approach to governments.”
Moxon said this is one case in which religions can put aside doctrinal differences to pursue a common goal.
“None of us is as strong as all of us,” he said.
Moxon said Francis has been a “good leader” on the issue.
“A few days after the beginning of his pontificate he raised the issue, and has done so many times since,” he said.
For Francis, the fight against human trafficking is nothing new.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio sponsored an NGO called “La Alameda” that fed him information about slave labor in Argentina’s clandestine sewing shops and also human trafficking for prostitution, and the future pope would find work and asylum for survivors.
During a mass held in a Buenos Aires train station in 2012, he compared the city to a “butcher shop” that takes away the human dignity of people trapped by these networks. He also denounced the local police department and the legal system for accepting bribes from traffickers, saying that “without them, these mafias wouldn’t exist.”
Sánchez said the pope expects Catholic leaders around the world to follow his lead.
Too many bishops, he said, “either believe their country doesn’t have human trafficking, or they consider it a problem to be resolved by politicians and the police” and thus not part of their job description.
Pointedly, Sánchez said he’d run into that attitude from “an American cardinal,” without supplying a name.
Kenneth Hackett, US Ambassador to the Vatican, described Francis as crucial factor in raising consciousness.
“The pope has put human trafficking in the global spotlight,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect estimate for the number of people affected by human trafficking, and also had the incorrect first name for Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo.