Once, rescuing slaves and returning them to their families was a worthy activity. Today, opposing FORB violations combats new forms of slavery.*
*A paper presented at the webinar “Administrative Slavery vs. Religious Freedom: The Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on December 2, 2021, International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.
by Massimo Introvigne
In 2014, I was invited to Montreal, Quebec, for a conference on religious liberty organized by the Catholic religious order of the Trinitarians. I gladly accepted, and one of the reasons was I was curious about how the Trinitarians might operate in the 21st century. I knew Trinitarians had been established in 1198 for one purpose, rescuing slaves. Reportedly, the founder of the Trinitarians, French aristocrat and priest John of Matha, was inspired by a vision of an angel holding by the hand two chained slaves, one Muslim and one Christian.
Remarkably, the Trinitarians also tried to improve the condition of Muslims enslaved in Christian lands, but their main job was to raise money and rescue Christian slaves by paying a ransom to their Muslim captors. I live near the coast of Tuscany where until the 19th century raids by Muslim pirates to capture men and women and take them to North Africa as slaves were a source of constant terror. These “Barbary pirates” attacked all European coasts, and the number of those they captured from the Middle Ages to the 19th century is variously estimated between 500,000 and more than one million.
Italian writer Oriana Fallaci, who became famous for her harsh criticism of Islam after 9/11, explained her attitude with the fact that one of her ancestors, Daniello Launaro, had been kidnapped from the coast of Tuscany, enslaved, and killed by Muslim pirates in the 18th century. Unlike Fallaci’s ancestors, those who were rescued by the Trinitarians survived and came back home. The pirates and the North African slave traders were always willing to sell them back to the Trinitarians for a good ransom.
I knew and admired both the Trinitarians’ work with the slaves and the magnificent churches they built as part of their campaigns to attract devotees who would then contribute to raising the sums needed to rescue the slaves, including in Rome and Leghorn. Not surprisingly, given its proximity to the coast, even my own village of Castellina Marittima once had a Trinitarian church.
Barbary pirates were destroyed in the 19th century after they started attacking American ships in the Mediterranean and enslaving their crews. The U.S. did not pass through the Trinitarians but in the year 1800 ransoms paid to the Barbary pirates and bribes given to pirate chieftains who would leave U.S. vessels alone amounted to 20% of the whole American federal expenditures. Eventually, this led to the United States gathering a coalition of states whose mighty naval forces decisively attacked the pirates and put an end to their activities.
One by-product of the Western victory against the pirates was a crisis in the Trinitarian order. All of a sudden, there were no slaves to be rescued by paying a ransom. The Trinitarians carried on anti-slavery activities elsewhere, but their numbers declined. Today, since slavery as it once existed has now happily disappeared leaving only small remnants in some African countries, what is left for Trinitarians to do? This was the question I was prepared to ask when they invited me to Canada in 2014.
I learned that in the 21st century the Trinitarians have experienced a revival of sort by reflecting on the concept of slavery. They have concluded that there are still forms of slavery today, although they are different from those imposed on their victims by Barbary pirates. The Trinitarians campaign against forced labor and forced prostitution. Particularly in Canada, they have also developed an important activity denouncing violations of FORB, freedom of religion or belief, wherever they occur. They argue that human beings can only be really free when their FORB is guaranteed, and the condition of those whose FORB is denied is somewhat similar to slavery, as they are enslaved through repression and persecution.
When I attended the Trinitarian conference on FORB in 2014, I was not aware of the Tai Ji Men case, although it was already going on from 18 years. It would have been ideally suited for the subject of that conference, denial of FORB as one of the contemporary forms of slavery. Actually, it would have been a textbook example of how denial of FORB does not only happen through bloody persecution. Administrative persecution is one of the most dangerous forms of FORB denial, as it is the most subtle. In the most serious cases, administrative persecution may become administrative slavery.
Women and men of Tai Ji Men have been deprived of their freedom to carry out their mission of self-cultivation, peace, and love freely and honorably, deprived of their reputation and subject to ridicule and slander, and deprived of their sacred land. Some were even deprived of their liberty and detained, although that their detention was unjust was later publicly recognized. What they may perceive, with good reasons, as a vast conspiracy to deprive them of their basic freedoms looks like administrative persecution as its worst. They need modern versions of the Trinitarians to rescue them. They may encouraged by the fact that so many international scholars and human rights activists are willing to play this role.