VATICAN SUMMIT ON 'PEOPLE OF THE SEA': Delegates Denounce New Slavery on High Seas

Peter Fournier and Catherine Fournier

From February 3-6 1998 the Vatican is holding the fourth meeting of regional coordinators of the apostolate of the sea. The meeting is sponsored by the Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants. The apostolate of the sea is one of seven working sectors of this Holy See office. The others are the sectors for refugees, immigrants, tourists, shrines and pilgrimages, civil aviation, nomads and gypsies and, finally, foreign students.

By people of the sea, the Holy See refers not only to those who earn their living by the sea, such as sailors and fishermen, but also their families and all port workers.

The current meeting, which includes the participation of the most important Church men involved in the pastoral care of the people of the sea from all over the world, has as its objective the analysis of the current situation to observe the existing problems in the different regions and evaluate successes to date.

This is the first meeting that takes place since the Twentieth World Congress of the Apostolate of the Sea held in 1997 in the Philippines and, especially, since the Holy Father's letter, "Stella Maris," (Star of the Sea) of the same year, which proposed concrete measures for the Church to respond effectively to the problems and needs of the people of the sea.

The problems highlighted during the current meeting relate primarily to the challenge of reaching people who spend most of their time in the sea. These people sometimes spend between six and eight months in so-called factory-ships and, consequently, do not receive the services of the Church as the rest of the faithful.

Other problems are directly related to exploitation. In some cases, it is a situation of real modern slaves: people who are mistreated and poorly paid about whom one rarely hears a word. This disclosure was made by the Hispanic-American program on Vatican Radio, when presenting the conclusions of the meeting. "They work up to 16 hours a day with no day off, in a very limited work area, which is the same as where they live. Often, these people do not understand English, the language usually spoken in the world of the sea, which causes all kinds of problems."

"In a complex world of interests such as that of the sea, with innumerable organisms and institutions that revolve around the ships (ghost societies, mercantile societies which lend their name under flags of convenience), the sailors are often the weakest link in the chain, and they pay for this with sub-human living conditions, sometimes even sacrificing their own life," the Vatican Radio program disclosed.

The meeting is making it very clear that, in such a world, the Church has the duty to be present, to state that men are worth more than money, as they are all sons of God.

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