By Catherine Smibert
ROME, JULY 28, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. Embassies to Rome and the Holy See joined forces in the fight against the illicit trade of human beings last Thursday.
Though having held various conferences separately in the past with regard to the topic, on this occasion their focus led them to combine their contacts in the field to analyze the action being taken to destroy the network that fuels the slavery -- paying men.
In a live video link-up between Rome and the U.S., experts discussed the specific area of 'clientele' or 'the demand' behind the horror of human trafficking. The topic was prompted by a Vatican conference held June of this year.
As I have been following this issue for some time, I was pleasantly surprised to observe how progress is finally being made, with the help of those closest to the problem, in cutting down the huge demand -- the sordid reason behind the thriving trade.
Norma Hotaling is a survivor of the trauma of the human sex-slave industry. As founder and executive director of SAGE -- Standing Against Global Exploitation -- she has been able to set up innovative and effective rehabilitation programs for severely exploited girls.
She receives funding for her project through a restorative justice program her group developed with the office of the San Francisco City Prosecutor and San Francisco Police Department. The program focuses more on education rather than punishment of criminal offences. Some 7,000 men, arrested for various crimes, have paid for and attended courses give by SAGE.
"Women and children make up the supply side of prostitution," says Hotaling. "The Demand side of prostitution is comprised mostly of men, many of whom are highly educated, and live a middle or upper class life."
This was the case with another of the guest presenters, Claudio Magnabosco. A high-profile Italian journalist and author, he eventually woke up to the fact that the African prostitutes he was going with were not necessarily acting of their own volition, and that the money he was paying for their "use" was going directly into the hands of their abusive traffickers.
His findings that these foreign children and young women had no idea, when recruited from their countries by ruthless traders, that they were going to lose all identity, be forced to "service" up to 20-30 men a day and be locked in basements, tortured and worse.
As he studied more and his ignorance dispersed, Magnabosco didn't wish to be part of the strong profit incentive for traffickers to entrap more victims.
He wrote a book and went on TV with his stories and findings and was instantly contacted by another 200 clients who had not realized the extent of the horrors behind what they were doing.
From here, Magnabosco founded the Benin City Project which further encouraged these men to be more conscience of what was going on behind-the-scenes, and has since set up a growing network, which has been able to rescue entrapped girls.
Around 10,000 of these victims have contacted the groups' toll-free number over the last couple of years, and 3,000 of those have been put in safe houses and into counseling programs.
Another face of the Benin City Project is the option to financially adopt an African girl so that she may not be forced to succumb to the temptation of providing a better life for her family by leaving her hometown.
This offer of fortune is a major cause behind the coercing of the suppliers, and was recognized at the conference by participants such as Ambassador John Miller, the U.S. Senior Advisor on Trafficking.
In the 2005 Trafficking of Persons Report by the U.S. State Department report on the issue, Ambassador Miller and his team look at other areas of the demand, noting that no community is unaffected by the scourge of the trade.
It shows that even the best-intentioned people and communities of the world are infected with this problem.
For example, the r)eport states how "in late 2004, an internal investigation revealed that dozens of peace keepers serving on a mission to Congo had committed sex abuse crimes against refugees, including many minors."
Most of the conference presenters put the flourishing activeness of the down to many factors, yet some stood out: 1) An easy availability of hard-core to perverse pornography on the Internet (men want to go beyond what they find there) 2) The normalization of rape and sexual exploitation -- it's normal for men with normal sexual needs to use prostitutes 3) Loosened social and religious norms concerning the sex industry 4) Profitability by individuals, organized groups and governments.
Actually, another hard-hitting aspect is how the profits from human trafficking fuel other criminal activities. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, human trafficking generates an estimated $9.5 billion in annual revenue in the United States alone.
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From Geneva to the Vatican
When two Orthodox Christians, met me in the Vatican last week after walking 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) to get there, their enthusiasm for the cause behind their journey replaced their exhaustion.
Tekle and Samuel Gebregiorgis of Eritrea, in east Africa, told me how they felt that this huge march from the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to the Vatican in Rome was a vital step toward achieving peace and stability in their country.
The pair had also marched from Germany to the European Commission in Brussels, to draw international attention to the situation in their country, usually involving purely political bodies.
But, when I asked Samuel why, as members of the Orthodox Church, they selected the Vatican as a destination, he answered that it was from this place where they had gained much support and inspiration for their task: "We saw the example Pope John Paul II set, by his work in his own country through peaceful measures and heeded his urging of the world to do the same ... the way of peace is the only way to achieve anything."
He continued: "This Pope stood for true reconciliation and we feel his labors, as Orthodox Christians, for ecumenical dialogue ... Now, we are pleased to have had the Vatican with us every step of the way -- their representatives even helped us depart properly following our talks with United Nations High Commissioner, Louise Arbour, so we continue informing the world of our nations' situation."
After 30 years of war and 12 years of peace, Samuel feels that Eritrea is worse than before, but barely gets noticed when it comes to global acts of solidarity.
"The suffering is calling out, and no-one answers," Samuel said, flanked by his huge "peace" flag during our interview, which never seems to leave his side.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organization, confirms in recent reports that Eritrea's human rights record is currently one of the worst on the African continent and beyond.
Samuel gave me an example that in his country over 40,000 prisoners are detained without trial, stripped of all their rights.
"In some cases it is unknown whether they are dead or alive," he said. "They have not been charged, but are forced to bear appalling conditions due to dangerous and unsanitary overcrowding, frequent use of torture, or are just thrown in extended solitary confinement."
One Orthodox priest, Rev. Tekleab Menghisteab, has been detained with two colleagues since November 2004. As an insulin-dependant diabetic, he collapsed after being unable to obtain his medication.
In 2004 Eritrea was designated, by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, as a CPC (country of particular concern).
I asked Samuel why it was that we don't hear or know more about this situation?
He attributed a lot of it to freedom of the press.
Eritrea's own press has been gagged since 2001 when all its independent media outlets were closed for "endangering national security." This makes Eritrea the only country to have no privately owned new media and has been described by the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders as the continent's "largest prison for journalists." No criticism of the government is tolerated.
Several journalists are among those indefinitely detained along with 11 ruling party members who had called for democracy. Eritrea remains a one-party state, with the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice the only party allowed to operate.
Samuel does not deny that there have been some positive steps taken by varied international groups, but this "has been limited to a small amount of people for specific projects rather than looking enough at the big picture."
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Il Santuario del Divino Amore
If you happen to have organized your summer holidays with the intention of a European pilgrimage, (like all those heading to World Youth Day this year), I would recommend placing a typical Roman one on your schedule.
Leaving at midnight every Saturday evening from Easter time to the end of October, pilgrims meet at the "Piazza di Porta Capena," near Circus Maximus, and set off for their destination -- the "Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love."
Beginning with a hymn, benediction and oration, (i.e. Sub tuum praesidium), the group makes their way on foot, allowing for those less able to join via the use of designated vehicles.
Each carries a candle and follows an electrically-lit cross down the old Appian Way (Via Appia Antica.) It passes by catacombs and other sacred sites, while prayers of varying forms are recited. The closer pilgrims get to the sanctuary, the more the pilgrimage characteristically resembles those toward the Temple of Jerusalem both in song and liturgy.
Pilgrims conclude their journey with Mass said at 5:00 a.m. inside the most ancient part of the shrine.
Romans have been walking this way since 1740 when a pilgrim got lost on his way to the tomb of St. Peter and was attacked by dogs. He found himself invoking the assistance of a lovely painting of Mary on the tower of the 12th Century Castle di Leva. She directly intervened and the dogs ran away while the pilgrim was healed and able to proceed to the Vatican.
Miracles have been attributed to this devotion ever since. Romans believe the Marian Sanctuary itself holds the key to their being preserved during WWII.
On June 4, 1944, while the image was being kept in the Church of St. Ignatius of Rome, the Roman faithful joined in prayer with Pope Pius XII to ask Mary's intercession in preserving them during war. That same night the German troops evacuated the city.
Having since been returned to its original location, the 14th century image has also been recognized by other pontiffs including the late Pope John Paul II. He highlighted the exquisite imagery of the Blessed Mother and dove hovering above her, "proclaiming the relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit, which is divine love."
The image is now conserved in the new sanctuary consecrated in July, 1999, and more recently a separate chapel has been dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament there.
For special visits or more information call the sanctuary office: +39-06-71-35-13-30.