The problem of slavery, one of humanity’s greatest evils, remains with us today. The overt chattel form of slavery, which Christian abolitionists raged against in the nineteenth century, has all but disappeared, but new less visible forms of bondage and exploitation have arisen. In fact, one of the most severe abuses of human rights, modern slavery is a concealed crime that is a pervasive aspect of contemporary life, operating on a global scale.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recently became the international fulcrum for addressing the scourge of modern slavery. Under the auspices of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a global gathering, “Sins Before Our Eyes: A Forum on Modern Slavery,” took place in Istanbul, February 6-7, 2017. The result of an initiative by His All-Holiness Bartholomew and His Grace Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and Primate of All England, launched during Bartholomew’s official Patriarchal visit to the Church of England’s Lamberth Palace in November 2015, the Forum brought together more than 70 distinguished scholars, religious leaders, government officials, non-governmental experts, and policymakers from across the globe.
Inasmuch as Orthodoxy—the living continuation of the Early Church—has always taught human dignity, personhood, and freedom as fundamental to Christian belief and practice, it is natural and fitting that the Ecumenical Patriarchate should champion the international cause of ending slavery in all its forms. These fundamental Orthodox convictions are affirmed by Saint Paul’s pronouncement that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). The Church Father, Saint, and Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, described slavery as “the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery, the fruit of sin and of human rebellion against our true Father.”
As a Patriarchal successor to Chrysostom, Bartholomew continues in contemporary times the Orthodox Church’s unwavering commitment to universal freedom and human dignity. Moreover, His All-Holiness has consistently made clear through his own long, salient record of work and activism that the Church’s responsibility is to combine belief and practice, to actualize faith through the organic connection to action. Honoring the belief that religious leaders are obligated to speak out against social injustice and exploitation, Bartholomew, through the Patriarchate’s Forum on modern slavery, focused attention on an invisible, but wide-reaching crime against humanity.
The magnitude and pernicious effects of modern slavery are enormous. More people are enslaved today than at any other time in human history. The most authoritative research on this subject, produced by the Global Slavery Index, indicates that at present, almost 46 million people in over 160 countries are captive in some form of modern slavery. This shocking reality, however, is obscured by the continued emphasis on the race-based model of Colonial-era New World slavery, which ignores the shift to globalized contemporary slave practices and forms, and which promotes the modernist conceit that slavery was ended in the West with the American Civil War. The current manifestations of slavery, as systematically outlined and analyzed by several of the Patriarchal Forum’s presenters and discussants, are oftentimes subtler and, therefore, more subversive than past forms of open slavery. Examples of modern slavery include human smuggling and human trafficking, forced sex trafficking of children and adults, involuntary domestic servitude, forced labor, coercive bonded labor or debt bondage, abduction and forced conscription of children as soldiers, and the enslavement of children and women as spoils of war.
Although the enslaved today are predominantly associated with conflict zones in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, slavery in the twenty-first century is deeply rooted in many societies across the globe. India, for example, with 18.4 million people living in slavery, has the ignominious distinction of leading the world’s list of enslaved populations by country. China is second with 3.4 million, followed by Pakistan, which has more than 2.1 million enslaved people. Four other Asian countries each have enslaved populations that exceed one million. Leading the list of Middle Eastern countries are Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, each with roughly 500,000 people living in slavery. The undeniably globalized nature and networks of modern slavery implicates all countries, from developing countries to those in the developed West, as morally damaged and institutionally corrupted by the presence of enslaved human beings in the midst of these societies. In the United States, it is estimated that approximately 58,000 people exist in conditions defined as slavery.
The international community has a mixed record in its response to the problem of modern slavery. While several states, especially those with strong civil societies and traditions of government accountability, enjoy good reputations for combatting modern slavery, many other states, in particular those with closed and authoritarian systems, are characterized by government complicity. With few exceptions, virtually all states and their corresponding media have demonstrated very little interest in addressing the problem of modern slavery. This general attitude of disinterest helps to explain public unawareness, misunderstanding, and indifference to the plight of the enslaved and to the conditions that fuel modern slavery. Finally, although the international community has to some extent evolved to identify the changing forms of slavery and has recognized its gross human rights abuses, it has failed, often despite good intentions, to establish effective enforcement mechanisms to fight slavery.
Through His All-Holiness’ widely recognized leadership in raising international awareness of and activism on environmental issues, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has demonstrated that the Orthodox Church provides both a global network, and a living theological commitment that can transcend geopolitical impediments and the limitations of states in tackling some of the world’s most serious problems. With this same characteristic understanding and vision, Bartholomew inspired and brought to fruition “Sins Before Our Eyes: A Forum on Modern Slavery.” Indeed, as in his seminal work on the environment, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has emphasized the unique transnational structural resources, capacity, and moral framework that enable the Orthodox Church to be a natural agent for change, emancipation, and healing when it comes to ending slavery in today’s world.
In His All-Holiness’ keynote address to the Forum on February 7, Bartholomew reflected on the immutable bonds between humanity’s stewardship of creation and the moral imperative to abolish slavery and protect human dignity: “We live in a world full of contradictions. Prosperity grows amidst famine; the struggle for peace and reconciliation is confronted with terrorism and the spread of hatred and religious fundamentalism; ecological movements coexist with technocracy and the deification of economic growth; the protection of human rights is confronted with social injustice and the lack of respect for human dignity as well as the phenomenon of modern slavery. This is precisely why we are convinced that responding to the problem of modern slavery is directly and inseparably linked to creation care, which has been at the very center of our patriarchal ministry over the last quarter century. The entire world is the body of Christ, just as human beings are the very body of Christ. The whole planet bears the traces of God, just as every person is created in the image of God. The way we respect creation reflects the way we respond to our fellow human beings. The scars that we inflict on our environment reveal our willingness to exploit our brother and sister.”
His Grace Archbishop of Canterbury Justin echoed and amplified Bartholomew’s insights. In His Grace’s address, Justin observed that slavery does not occur in isolation, that it is nourished by conflict, chaos, and the breakdown of rule of law, and that it persists because it remains a highly profitable criminal activity. Speaking to the decisive role played by Christian Churches historically and at present in providing relief to ravaged populations, Justin commented: “I am reminded that the Church, like no other organization, is there before, during, and after conflict. Churches in these situations find themselves in the front line in the battle against modern day slavery. We need to look at ways of strengthening the capacity of Churches in conflict and fragile states to provide compassionate and loving service to those at risk. We need to resource them to identify the telltale signs of slavery and to support them to challenge the stigma that many survivors experience.”
Emphasizing their unity of purpose, Bartholomew and Justin presented a Joint Declaration at the close of the Forum. The Declaration condemned “all forms of human enslavement as the most heinous of sins, inasmuch as it violates the free will and the integrity of every human being created in the image of God.” The Declaration detailed ways the Orthodox Church and the Church of England will collaborate in the battle against modern slavery. In addition to establishing a joint taskforce, the Declaration emphasized the importance of local, national, and global alliance building to widen the networks of public and private institutions that together can produce tangible responses to the problem of slavery.
Earlier, in his keynote address, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew cast in sharp relief the path forward for confronting and defeating modern slavery: “How then can we face this crisis? How can we attempt to heal the wounds of our divided world? It is obvious that such a problem demands from us all immense mobilization, common action, common goals, strength and responsibility. Nobody—no state, no Church, no religion, neither science nor technology—can face the current challenges alone. We regard the worldwide crisis as an opportunity for building bridges, for openness and mutual trust. Our future is common and the way towards it is a common journey.”
The Orthodox Church can help light the path on which that common journey must unfold. Christian theology, Eastern and Western, proclaims that Christ came to free the oppressed, to end abominations to human dignity. Both Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Justin reminded us through “Sins Before Our Eyes: A Forum on Modern Slavery,” that theology is to be lived and transformed into action. In that way, we all have a responsibility to help break the chains of slavery that deny people their God-given freedom to experience dignity and the fullness of life.
Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.