The Body of Christ in Mauritania: A Voice for the Voiceless Slaves
By Rabih Hasbany
In 1981, Mauritania abolished slavery, the last country in the world to do so. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of people still live as forced laborers, domestic servants or child brides. According to The Global Slavery Index, the estimated number of people living in modern slavery in Mauritania is 90,000 and the estimated proportion of the population living in modern-day slavery in Mauritania is 21.43/1000.
Slavery has a long history in this North African nation. For centuries, Arabic-speaking Moors invaded African villages, resulting in a rigid caste system that still exists to this day – with darker-skinned inhabitants beholden to their lighter-skinned “masters.” Slave status is passed down from one generation to the next, and anti-slavery activists are regularly detained and tortured. For instance, a prominent Mauritanian anti-slavery activist, Biram Dah Abeid, was taken into custody on the eve of legislative elections last August. Yet, the government routinely denies that slavery exists in Mauritania.
Human rights activists try to raise the profile of the issue of slavery through advocacy and lobbying, as well as through actions aimed at urging authorities to enforce existing legislation. Anti-slavery activists and human rights defenders in Mauritania are regularly met with a lack of cooperation and even repression from the authorities.
Additionally, countries like the United States are pressuring the Mauritanian Government to implement anti-slavery legislation through the imposition of sanctions. On 5 October, the United Sates rescinded Mauritania’s status as a preferential trade partner, accusing the West African state of tolerating forced labor and hereditary slavery.
The Mauritanian Government reacted furiously after the above decision was made. Government spokesperson Mohamed Ould Maham criticized the move on Twitter, calling it “a betrayal of the friendly relations between our countries and a denial of our efforts” to roll back slavery practices.
Activists, NGO’s and other parties, like the United States, are attempting to defend the rights of slaves in Mauritania and pressure the Mauritanian government to enforce existing legislation. What is the role of the body of Christ in Mauritania, the MENA region, and around the globe concerning the issue of slavery?
Biblical and Theological Reflections
Paul makes it clear that in terms of our status before God, there is no difference between slave and free:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV).
Furthermore, He subverts the very notion of slavery in saying that a slave is “the Lord’s free person” (1 Corinthians 7:22).
In addition, Paul writes to a slave-owner, Philemon, whose slave, Onesimus, ran away and came to Paul. Whilst Paul does not directly attack the institution of slavery in his letter, he actually goes much further in his subversion. He abolishes the very notion of slavery:
“Perhaps the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 15-16, NIV).
A Mauritanian student at ABTS says that he inherited two slaves from his family, siblings who were born into a slave family. After becoming a follower of Christ, he began to see them as people created in the image of God and decided to do something counter-cultural. First, he immediately chose to set the sister free. He treated her like a member of the family, until she was married and left to live with her husband. The brother, on the other hand, was facing some health complications. The student took care of him until he recovered from his illness. Before setting him free, the student made sure he received an education and sent him for vocational training. Upon finishing school and finding a job, the brother was set free.
Our Mauritanian student chose to follow Paul’s footprints in dealing with slaves in his community. He also commented that the followers of Christ in Mauritania, who represent the body of Christ within their communities, should also respond to the issue of slavery. He calls on them to challenge the norms and the dominant culture of the community and to grant the slave their rights. Setting them free immediately might not always be the best solution, because sometimes they have no place to go to other than their “master’s” house and they cannot have any other job since they have been enslaved since birth. However, empowering them through education and vocational training could be a way for them to find liberation from the bondage of slavery from which they have been suffering for years.
The global church and the church in the MENA region can be effective in raising the issue of slavery through advocacy. Mauritania is not the only country that still practices slavery. Migrant domestic workers are treated as slaves in Lebanon. Child labor and military recruitment are other forms of slavery. Even employees that are not well paid can be described as simply a milder form of slavery. Jesus, however, sent us into the world to bind up the brokenhearted and to proclaim freedom for the captives. The church in our region and around the globe is called to fulfill this mission, to be a prophetic voice for the voiceless slaves.