Pope Francis said on Tuesday that the suffering caused by human trafficking is “an open wound on the body of Christ.”

“Human trafficking is violence. The violence suffered by every woman and every girl is an open wound on the body of Christ, on the body of all humanity; it is a deep wound that affects every one of us too,” the pope said in a video message released on Feb. 8.

The pope condemned both the human trafficking of laborers and sex trafficking, which he said relegates women and girls to “dispensers of pleasure” and “proposes yet again a model of relationships marked by the power of the male gender over the female.”

“The organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly the fact that women have the same dignity and identical rights as men,” he said.

Pope Francis added that both men and women can and must fight to ensure that the dignity of every person is recognized with “special attention to those whose fundamental rights have been violated.”

The pope’s comments came as Catholics from 30 countries across the world rallied together virtually as part of an online prayer marathon for the International Day of Prayer and Reflection against Human Trafficking.

Human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion industry that profits off of 25 million victims worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization.

Josephine Bakhita. . A.Currell via Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)
Josephine Bakhita. . A.Currell via Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

Pope Francis established the International Day eight years ago to coincide with the Feb. 8 feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of human trafficking victims.

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“St. Bakhita shows us the way of transformation. Her life tells us that change is possible when one lets oneself be transformed by God’s care for each one of us. It is the care of mercy — it is the care of love that changes us deeply and makes us able to welcome others as brothers and sisters,” the pope said.

“Recognizing the dignity of each person is the first act of care, it is the first act of care. Recognizing dignity. And taking care of others is good for all, for those who give and those who receive, because it is not a unidirectional action, but rather it generates reciprocity.”

St. Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 in Sudan. Around 1877, she was kidnapped and sold into slavery by Arab slave traders. During her time as a slave, she was beaten, tortured, and scarred.

Eventually, in 1883, she was sold to the Italian vice-consul Callisto Legani, who took her with him back to Italy. While in Italy, she was given to a family and became their nanny, and that family eventually left her with the Canossian Sisters in Venice when they traveled to Sudan for business.

Once with the sisters, she learned about Christianity and decided to become Catholic. She refused to go back to the family that enslaved her once they returned to Italy, and an Italian court ruled that since slavery had been outlawed in Sudan before her birth, she was not legally a slave. She was then freed from slavery.

With her newfound freedom, Bakhita remained with the Canossians. She took the names Josephine Margaret and Fortunata, the Latin translation of her Arabic name, Bakhita. Three years later, she became a novice with the Canossian Daughters of Charity, and professed her final vows on December 8, 1896.

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She then lived out the remainder of her life in a convent in Schio, Vicenza, working as a cook and a doorkeeper. She died on Feb. 8, 1947, and was canonized on Oct. 1, 2000, by Pope John Paul II.

“God took care of Josephine Bakhita; he accompanied her in the process of healing the wounds caused by slavery, until her heart, mind, and inner self became capable of reconciliation, freedom, and tenderness,” Pope Francis said.

“I encourage every woman and every girl who is committed to transformation and care, in school, in the family, and in society. And I encourage every man and every boy not to be left out of this process of transformation, recalling the example of the Good Samaritan: a man who is not ashamed to tend to his brother and to take care of him,” he added.

Aloysius John, the secretary general of the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis, also spoke out on the International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking.

“The victims of human trafficking are often the invisible, but they are the most vulnerable populations, and we are called to accompany and protect these women, men, and children,” John said.

Caritas Internationalis is part of a coalition of Christian NGOs engaged in the fight against human trafficking, and works closely with victims of labor and sex trafficking in many countries.

The online prayer marathon for the world day against human trafficking is being coordinated by Talitha Kum, a network of more than 2,000 Catholic religious sisters who serve on the frontlines of the fight against sex trafficking, helping survivors find healing and true freedom.

Religious sisters affiliated with Talitha Kum are present in 77 countries. Members of the network have served 10,000 trafficking survivors by accompanying them to shelters and other residential communities, engaging in international collaboration, and helping them to return home.

“Let us go forward in the struggle against human trafficking and every form of slavery and exploitation,” Pope Francis said.

“I invite you all to keep your indignation alive — keep your indignation alive! — and to find, every day, the strength to engage with determination on this front. Do not be afraid of the arrogance of violence, no! Do not surrender to the corruption of money and power.”