The Role of Religion in Anti-Slavery Efforts

For collaboration to be possible, many groups with different beliefs must work together. This seems to make it particularly hard for those working within faith-based groups to speak out about the problems they've watched religion create.
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The most cursory glance at websites of organizations working to combat human trafficking will make one thing clear: the role of religion plays a vital role. Some groups place their religious beliefs front and center; some prefer to call themselves "faith-based." Some groups subtly lace the language of their mission with their particular denomination; some make it clear that they are "non-religious." Every group working in the anti-slavery sector has made a conscious decision about (1) what their religious affiliations are or are not and (2) what this means in terms of their brand. So what are the effects - good, bad and otherwise - of religion and faith on the global movement against human trafficking?

Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and an influential socio-political activist in his own right, said "faith-based organizations, across the board, have played a very negative role in the human trafficking movement because of their obsession with dividing humanity. The Hindus, even to this day, continue to propagate caste distinctions that are fundamentally racist; Christians used to outright justify slavery and even today they work hard politically and otherwise to make clear the distinctions between believers and non-believers. The same can be said of the Muslims."

His words paint a dire picture that seems to stand in direct contrast to groups like Chab Dai, a Christian coalition of over 40 organizations spread throughout Canada, Cambodia and the United States. Though Chab Dai makes it known that their work is Christian-driven, their name literally means "joining of hands" in Khmer, they've exhibited their openness to join hands with secular organizations. In fact, their work to create The Freedom Registry, a nascent-stage website with the goal of allowing all anti-slavery groups around the world to collaborate, has the potential to entirely change the game when it comes to how we address this complex crime.

For the most part, "faith-based" has become synonymous with Christianity. Their organized missions and their ability to generate finances means that they can make a tremendous impact on whatever cause with which they align themselves - especially when dynamic leaders like South Korea's Eddie Byun, lead Pastor at Onnuri English Ministry in Seoul and the founder of Hope Be Restored, are at the helm. Eddie believes that "setting the captives free is the biblical mandate" of all followers of Christ. According to Pastor Byun, "Slavery is not just a legal or economic issue - it's also a spiritual issue. For example, in the world of sex trafficking, the industry is driven by the lust of the "Johns" and the greed of the traffickers. At their core, these are spiritual issues. We can put everyone involved in jail, but it won't change the desires that drove them their in the first place. Incarceration may modify behavior, but it can't change a person's heart. That is why the spiritual community of faith needs to be involved to bring change."

Nannette Ricaforte, a photographer and volunteer with My Refuge House, a Christian anti-slavery group based in the Philippines, doesn't think faith is required to fight human trafficking, but she's firm in her belief that faith-based organizations could run into problems if they aren't willing to be flexible, "What do they do when a survivor is Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic? That was the first question I posed to the directors before I even thought of volunteering for them." Though the Philippines are considered the only Christian country in Asia, Nannette said she's watched My Refuge House work diligently to respect the faith of all survivors. In fact, she wouldn't work for them if they didn't.

Faith has the potential to dramatically help survivors who have hit rock bottom, but for Nannette Ricaforte, it's also what helps her group continue on:

"When we've exhausted our human limitations and resources, when we are fatigued from fighting, our faith renews and restores us. It gives us strength to continue fighting another day."

For collaboration to be possible, many groups with different beliefs must work together. This seems to make it particularly hard for those working within faith-based groups to speak out about the problems they've watched religion create. In fact, many interviewees simply wouldn't answer questions on this topic until they were guaranteed anonymity.

One respected leader of an NGO in Southeast Asia said that although faith-based groups have spread awareness, they've also lead the movement astray by conveying a complex problem in overly simplistic and often erroneous ways. "I've watched first-hand how religious conversion is what's expected of survivors in exchange for their receiving help. People without any experience in dealing with survivors of human trafficking indoctrinate survivors into believing that they cannot be helped unless God is in their lives. The most heartbreaking part is when faith-based community leaders or religious people are granted major positions of power when it comes to helping trafficked and sexually abused children. They often care deeply, but caring doesn't compensate for an absolute lack of training. Many actually refuse training or additional help because their work 'is in God's hands.'"

Arun Gandhi echoed similar sentiments, adding that "My grandfather talked about the culture of violence. When religious leaders preach hate and divide humanity they are essentially trafficking in the moral and values of people. This, I believe, is part of that culture."

The faith-based and non-religious groups desperately need each other and, in the end, Pastor Byun got it right when he said that survivors "...may have been free physically for years, but it's not until their hearts are free to love and receive love again that they can be truly liberated." Such liberation can be achieved in a variety of ways and is based on each individual. It's up to each group within the anti-slavery sector to find beauty in the realization that one size does not fit all.