Whether here in Winnipeg, or across the world, human trafficking and slavery are issues close to God’s heart. In an act of historic cooperation, leaders of the world’s largest religions are pledging to end slavery and human trafficking by 2020.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis held a ceremony at the Vatican sponsored by the Global Freedom Network to sign The Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders against Modern Slavery. The GFN was established by Pope Francis; Most Revd and Right Hon Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury; and Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Mosque in Egypt, the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, and Sunni Muslim faiths respectively.

Religious leaders from around the world signed a declaration stating “We pledge ourselves here today to do all in our power, within our faith communities and beyond, to work together for the freedom of all those who are enslaved and trafficked so that their future may be restored.”

In addition to the GFN’s founders, two rabbis, two ayatollahs, a Hindu guru, a Zen master, an Orthodox patriarch, an imam, and a sheikh signed the historic document. In total, twelve leaders representing eight different religions or Christian churches signed their names.

The document says “In the eyes of God, each human being is a free person, whether girl, boy, woman, or man, and is destined to exist for the good of all in equality and fraternity.”

According to the Global Slavery Index, an estimated 35.8 million men, women and children are trapped in slavery today. The GSI defines slavery as “one person possessing or controlling a person in such as a way as to significantly deprive that person of their individual liberty, with the intention of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal.”

In Winnipeg, human trafficking shows itself most powerfully in the form of prostitution. Shona Stewart is a pastor of women’s outreach at Kilcona Park Alliance Church and the executive director of Dignity House, a transitional home for women leaving prostitution. She says that prostitution is a real problem in Winnipeg, but she sees positive change every day.

“Manitoba has been on the forefront of trying different things to combat trafficking and prostitution,” said Stewart. “The Winnipeg Police do a great job targeting the demand and not the supply. In other words, they’re not targeting the victims of the sex trade, they’re targeting those enabling it.”

Dignity House helps women who are trying to escape the sex trade find emotional and spiritual guidance to continue into normal life. Stewart said many women who stay at Dignity House come to know Christ.

“I’m a formerly prostituted woman, and now I’ve got the education; I’m a minister. I really know what these women have gone through, and when they see that, they’re able to trust me, and trust God.”

Stewart said Dignity House is currently applying for charitable status, and is opening a second house in January, to better serve the women they help.

The GFN declaration has set a goal to eradicate slavery by the end of the decade with the help of the global faith community. Ministries like Dignity House aim for the same goal, and if the local church backs them up we might see slavery erased in our lifetime.