ROME – Once again praying from the window of the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square, despite rain and the coronavirus pandemic, Pope Francis on Sunday ticked off many of his core social concerns: Peace, life, migration, and the fight against modern-day slavery, all in a matter of minutes.
Peace and democracy for Myanmar
Francis said he was following with “concern” the unraveling situation in Myanmar, a country “I carry in my heart with much affection” since his visit in 2017. The country’s generals overthrew an elected government last Monday, triggering street protests in a country where the military has a history of using violence to quell threats to its power.
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar has called on the military to release the country’s elected officials, including Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, “at the earliest” moment possible.
The military accuses Suu Kyi’s government of not investigating allegations of voter fraud in the November 2020 elections that her National League for Democracy won in a landslide. Observers say the military may have feared that Suu Kyi would use her supermajority in parliament to change the country’s constitution, which the army crafted to reserve several powers to itself.
In his Feb. 3 message, Bo called the coup “unexpected” and “shocking,” and said that he was praying “for an end forever to the periodic darkness that envelops our dear nation.”
On Sunday Francis implicitly backed the cardinal, praying for those “who have the responsibility in the country to place themselves, sincerely, at the disposal of the common good, promoting social justice and national stability for a harmonious democratic coexistence.”
Unaccompanied migrant children
Migration is never far from Pope Francis’s mind, and he often sneaks references into his speeches and prayers. Sunday was no exception, focusing on the thousands of children who flee their countries looking for better opportunities or escaping war, violence and hunger.
“I would like to make an appeal in favor of unaccompanied migrant minors,” Francis said. “There are so many.”
He mentioned having been informed about the “dramatic situation” of minors in the “Balkan route,” but didn’t give specifics. Reports speak of hundreds of minors stranded on the border between Bosnia and Croatia, living in makeshift camps with freezing temperatures and no access to water or electricity. An estimated 200 people a day make it to the border, most departing from Turkey and Greece, after fleeing northern Africa, Iraq or Syria. They have to go through Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Croatia before reaching Italy or Austria through Slovenia.
It’s a long and strenuous journey, crossing mountains and snow-covered forests, with virtually no facilities for migrants. Many of the children of the migrant crisis were born along during the “Balkan Route,” which, for many families, began several years ago.
Few families are successful in reaching the increasingly inhospitable central Europe, with most being stopped by Croatian police and searched, allegedly often robbed and then pushed back into Bosnia, where they spend months stranded. In December, a fire destroyed a migrant camp in Bosnia, making a dire situation even worse for over 2,000 people who lost all of what little they had.
Italy’s Day for Life
Celebrated under the theme of “Freedom and Life,” the Italian bishops conference promoted a day of prayer for life Sunday, and the pope urged society to “be helped to heal from all attacks on life, so that it is protected at every stage.”
He also referred to an Italian “demographic winter.”
“In Italy, births have dropped and the future is in danger,” Francis warned. “Let’s take this concern and try to make sure that this demographic winter ends and a new spring of boys and girls blossoms.”
Italy’s fertility rate – the average number of children per women – is one of the lowest in the world, with 1.3 live birth per woman as of 2020. For a generation to exactly replace itself, 2.1 live births are needed.
Pope Francis has referred to the demographic winter in Italy and Europe several times, including during his visit to Bulgaria, in 2019, when he said this winder “has descended like an ice curtain on a large part of Europe, the consequence of a diminished confidence in the future.”
Day of prayer against human trafficking
Pope Francis highlighted the Feb. 8 World Day of Prayer against Trafficking, one of the world’s largest illegal industries, that according to the International Labor Organization affects over 40 million people worldwide who are forced to work in slave-like conditions, being bought and sold as property or forced into prostitution.
One in four of those enslaved today, including by forced marriages, are children.
The day of prayer is marked on the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, considered a patron saint for trafficking victims. Born in 1868 in Darfur, Sudan, she was kidnapped at the age of nine and sold into slavery, first in her country and later in Italy. She died in 1947 and was declared a saint by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000.
This year’s day of prayer will take place under the motto of “Economy without Trafficking in Persons,” and will be held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will bring together all the realities of the world that are committed against trafficking in persons.
“The goal is to work for an economy that does not favor, not even indirectly, these ignoble trafficking, that is, an economy that never makes men and women a commodity, an object,” Francis said Sunday. “[An economy at the] service to men and women, but not one that uses them as goods.”
The World Day is coordinated by Talitha Kum, the network of consecrated life against trafficking in persons of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), in partnership with the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Service to Integral Human Development, Caritas Internationalis, the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, the Focolare Movement and many other organizations involved at the local level.
A message from Pope Francis will be broadcast during 8-hour live marathon, that will be available through YouTube and with simultaneous translations into five languages, including English and Spanish.
Pope Francis established the World Day of Prayer against Human Trafficking in 2015, but modern-day slavery has been a concern of his since he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma