20 March 2014, The Tablet

Faiths unite against human trafficking

Robert Mickens in Rome
Mark Brolly in Melbourne
and Liz Dodd in London

Pope Francis has committed the Vatican to be a founding member of a new and unprecedented interfaith initiative aimed at eradicating human trafficking and the illegal sales of human organs within the next five years. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (Egypt), Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, joined the Pope in forming the Global Freedom Network (GFN) to combat modern slavery.

Representatives of the three religious leaders held a Vatican press conference on Monday to sign an agreement to establish the network. A major force behind the project is Australian philanthropist Andrew Forrest, whose anti-trafficking “Walk Free Foundation” is the fourth founding partner of the GFN.

“The Global Freedom Network is an open association, and other faith leaders will be invited to join and support this initiative,” the four founders said. Additionally, the network plans to “slavery-proof” members – for example, through guidance on ethical investment – and to educate congregations and schools.

The participation of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, considered by many to be the leading authority of Sunni Islam in the world, marks a particularly significant breakthrough for Catholic-Muslim relations. The imam and the Al-Azhar University that he supervises had suspended dialogue with the Holy See after being offended by comments Benedict XVI made in a 2006 lecture in Regensburg.

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ called the GFN an “historic initiative” to “inspire spiritual and practical action” to rid the world of human trafficking. Mr Forrest said the goal is to get the “162 governments of the world, which measure in the global slavery index, to join the world’s great faiths” and to “place the eradication of slavery as the single greatest economic multiplier”.

Two women will lead daily operations of the network from Rome – Australian expert in the field Toni Stampalija will serve as CEO, and Gabriella Marino as board manager. Ms Marino has worked as an English language translator at the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and of Social Sciences. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the academies, is an executive board member. Other members include Archbishop Sir David Moxon, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See; and Mr Forrest.

This week, Mr Forrest told Fairfax Media, publisher of The Age newspaper in Melbourne and The Sydney Morning Herald, that the roots of his initiative to eradicate slavery lay in an experience that deeply shook him.

Five years ago, his daughter Grace, aged 15, had volunteered at an orphanage in Nepal and found out that all the children she had been looking after had been “groomed” for sex work. Mr Forrest set up a team to find out what happened to them: they were trafficked through India to the Middle East. He travelled to meet some of them. “There was one kid [from Kathmandu] who could only say she had been sent to a land where the men wore long dresses,” he said. The girl’s ordeal began when she was nine and lasted three years, until she was returned to India. “She hadn’t spoken for several months,” Mr Forrest said. “She gave her story and from that point on she would only rock on her bed and whimper.” He researched the slave industry, ordered a review of all his supply chains at his company Fortescue Metals Group, and demanded affidavits from all suppliers that they had reviewed their own supply chains. The initiative is not connected to the upcoming Vatican conference on human trafficking to be chaired by Cardinal Vincent Nichols in April, although organisers told The Tablet that they would be interested in the conclusions the conference reaches.

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