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Story of St. Josephine Bakhita continues to shine light on evil of slavery

An image of St. Josephine Bakhita, a former Sudanese slave who became a nun, hangs from the facade of St. Peter's Basilica Oct. 1, 2000. January is Human Trafficking Awareness month in the U.S., the Church celebrates International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking Feb. 8, the feast day of St. Bakhita, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Sudan and Italy. (OSV News photo/Paolo Cocco, Reuters)

By Greg Burke

Human cruelty, at times, seems to know no boundaries. We see examples of depravity and wanton violence every day, whether it’s the cavalier disregard for human life of the drug lords or the intentional killing of innocents by Islamic terrorists, or the sinister work of the Sicilian Mafia bosses, like dissolving a 12-year-old boy in a vat of acid.

We’re all aware of Narcos, Islamic terrorists and Mafiosi, thanks to Netflix and the headlines in the paper, but rarely do we think about human traffickers and that’s unfortunate. Why? Because those who traffic in human beings — for sexual purposes, for free labor or for their organs — make drug dealers look like gentlemen.

You might be tempted to think slavery is a problem in poor, far-away countries, and it is. But it’s also happening in the wealthiest and most developed countries of the world, including the United States. Right here, right now.

Slavery didn’t end in the United States with the Civil War and the 13th Amendment in 1865. Legal slavery ended. What continues to this day is people — most of them young women — being enslaved in massage parlors, nail salons and prostitution rings — working to pay off massive debts they owe to the people who have tricked and trafficked them.

Runaway kids are particularly easy prey, getting picked up at bus stations and malls within days of having left home. Owning slaves is incredibly profitable, (even more so than dealing drugs) and quite difficult to prosecute, so traffickers are brazen in going about their business.

How to put an end to the problem? First of all, shine a light on it. When ordinary people realize what’s going on, even in their own neighborhoods, they’ll take steps to stop it. See something, say something.

One way the church shines a light is through the life of St. Josephine Bakhita, the patroness of victims of slavery and trafficking. St. Josephine was a Sudanese woman, abducted as a young girl in the late 1800s and forced into slavery. She was eventually brought to Italy and freed. She became a Christian and entered religious life with the Canossian Sisters.

St. Josephine bore the marks of slavery in her flesh, having been cut by one owner some 114 times. She was declared “blessed” in 1992 and made a saint in the year 2000. Her story has helped Catholics be more aware of what Pope Francis calls the “scourge” of trafficking and slavery. Feb. 8, the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, is the annual day of prayer and awareness against human trafficking.

Few things can destroy a person’s dignity more than being owned by someone else, and being treated like an animal — or less than an animal. Frequently victims of trafficking are raped, drugged and beaten into submission. That doesn’t happen to many animals.

Victims range from children not yet school age being used for online pornography, to Filipino maids enslaved in the wealthy Gulf states, to Mexican kids being trafficked for their organs and American runaways forced into prostitution.

Young men from poor countries in Southeast Asia also get tricked into working 20 hours a day for months on end on big fishing boats with no pay. Unfortunately, the ways to ensnare desperately poor people are almost limitless. Fortunately, there are thousands of religious sisters working to defend human dignity.

Although not many people are aware of it, religious sisters are the largest and most effective group combating human trafficking worldwide. I got to see their incredible contribution through the Arise Foundation, a small NGO, but one punching well above its weight. Arise was founded in 2015, and helps frontline groups, especially networks of sisters, in fighting the root causes of slavery today. Those root causes are extreme poverty and unemployment.

While many religious sisters set up safe houses for trafficked women after they have been rescued, the focus of Arise is on prevention — tackling the problem at its roots. Awareness is only the start: education, skills training and job creation are also key.

Like much of the educational and health service the Church provides around the world, the amazing work of sisters to combat trafficking gets little media attention. They aren’t looking for attention, but we should at least offer them our help. This quiet, generous and selfless effort probably deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, and certainly deserves our support and our prayers.

Greg Burke, a former Vatican spokesman, develops strategic partnerships for the anti-slavery charity Arise.