ROME – It’s widely known both that Pope Francis is an avid soccer fan, and that when it comes to social concerns, the fight against human trafficking is one of the priorities of his pontificate.
Hence it’s no surprise that, with his green light, a papal foundation is getting involved in the fight against the use of modern-day slavery for building stadiums for soccer’s World Cup Qatar 2022, after NGOs found that hundreds of trafficking victims have already died building facilities that will host the tournament.
In October 2017, during an encounter Francis had with the Pontifical Scholas Occurrentes foundation, Argentine Guillermo Whpei, President of the Foundation for International Democracy, presented the pontiff a report called “Behind the Passion,” on Qatar 2022.
“I gave him this report, and due to our encounter and the reading of the material, His Holiness sent a letter to the president of FIFA through Scholas, asking for an explanation of these allegations he’d received from us,” Whpei told Crux. “We know that some 2,000 migrants have died in the construction of the tournament’s facilities already.”
Crux obtained an exclusive copy of the letter, addressed to Italian Gianni Infantino, president of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA. The missive is signed by the two global directors of Scholas, Enrique A. Palmeyro and José María del Corral.
The letter details that Francis received the report with accusations of cases of slavery found in Qatar for the building of the infrastructure of the World Cup.
“The description of situations of flagrant submission and violation of the human rights of workers and immigrants in Qatar has motivated our concern and that of the [Scholas] sports council,” the letter says.
Del Corral and Palmeyro also tell Infantino that they want to meet with him to “urgently” address the issue, and that they can either welcome him in the Vatican or go to his offices.
In 2016, Infantino was in the Vatican, where, at an informal encounter, Francis asked him to fight the corruption that plagued the international soccer federation.
In 2015, U.S. federal prosecutors disclosed cases of corruption by officials and associates of FIFA. As a fallout of that investigation, which saw several defendants pleading guilty and agreeing to forfeit more than $40 million, Sepp Blatter resigned from his position as president of the organization. In addition, an investigation was launched into Qatar 2022 regarding accusations of bribery in the bidding process.
FIFA and Scholas signed an agreement to carry out together activities linked to promoting peace in different soccer matches, part of a program called “Fut-Val,” akin to “soccer with values.”
Consulted by Crux regarding Francis’s knowledge of the letter, Del Corral said that it was the pontiff who received the information from Whpei and “for this reason we, from Scholas, in diverse ways, carried out a consultation with the organizations responsible for the World Cup Qatar 2022.”
He also said that to this day, they’ve received no response from FIFA to their letter, dated Feb. 27, 2018.
“We know that there are some 40 million slaves around the world,” Whpei said. “Almost every country has people in slavery today, particularly the biggest ones, such as China or India, but the United States or Argentina are no exception.”
“The situation of the World Cup Qatar 2022 is very particular,” he said, detailing the reasons, which include the fact that the choice of this Middle Eastern Country as hosting nation was “marked by corruption,” and the sheer number of forced migrants there, which led the country “to legalize modern slavery through a system.”
Sgarab Burrow, Secretary General of the International Trade Union Confederation, said in March 2017 that FIFA hadn’t assumed its responsibility regarding respect for the human rights of migrant workers in Qatar.
According to research carried out by the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch, migrant construction workers in Qatar, including those building stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, are working in potentially life-threatening heat and humidity, causing hundreds of workers to die every year.
In a statement from Sept. 2017, Human Rights Watch said that Qatari authorities need to “enforce adequate restrictions on outdoor work” while also calling for regular investigations and information on worker deaths.
A CNN report from the time quotes Sheik Saif Al Thani, director of the Government Communications Office, saying that the nation is committed to a labor reform program and was constantly reviewing its policies to ensure that “migrant workers receive the necessary on-site protections.”
Yet for the papal foundation Scholas, and other human rights watch groups, the changes implemented so far are not enough. Hence, the two Argentines, who’ve long been close collaborators of Francis, want to see FIFA exercise pressure in the Gulf nation to ensure that no more migrants working in slave-like conditions die building soccer stadiums.
Though at times hard to describe, Scholas is a project created by Francis in 2013, as a continuation of the work he did with Del Corral and Palmeyro back in Argentina. The scope, Del Corral told Crux, is to work with youth, particularly in schools, promoting values through sports, arts and technology.
In recent years, they’ve opened offices in Rome in the Piazza San Calisto building, property of the Vatican, in Rome’s famed Trastevere neighborhood; as well as in Mexico, Colombia, Mozambique, the United States and Argentina.
On May 11, Francis went to San Calisto- he meets with Scholas at least once a year, often more regularly- and connected via satellite with youth participating in some of the foundation’s programs. After each connection, he imparts a blessing, and during one of them, he publicly defended the foundation, asking for prayers for those who “oppose” the initiative.