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Churches face up to world AIDS pandemic
Working against the stigma, discrimination, ignorance, fear and injustice impacting people living with AIDS and HIV+ is a major priority for the churches, the thirteenth Conference on World Mission and Evangelism heard this week at its meeting in Athens, Greece.
The scale of the global AIDS pandemic was emphasized both in plenaries and workshops at the gathering, which has brought together 600 leaders from 105 countries to reflect on the future of Christian mission and the reconfiguration of ecumenical cooperation.
At current rates, 100 million people worldwide will be infected with HIV by 2010. Of the 14,000 people infected every day, 85% live in the developing world. Africa, which also has massive rates of sickle cell anaemia and other diseases, has been especially badly hit.
Participants at the CWME heard that AIDS is not just a pastoral crisis. It also creates economic, social and cultural dislocation.
The gathering heard challenges from various quarters to the idea that AIDS is a judgment of God. ìWe must not blame those who are sufferingî, said one participant. ìBut we must face up to the political and moral challenge the spread of AIDS represents.î
One speaker illustrated the impact of the disease powerfully. Gracia Violeta Ross only understood the meaning of her first name (grace) after discovering she was HIV-positive.
At that point in her life, she thought she was going to die soon, and asked God for forgiveness for a lifestyle that she felt had separated her from God's will. "God healed me completely then, although I am still living with HIV," she told the Conference.
Ross, a 28-year old Bolivian who grew up in an evangelical family, made the point that healing and cure don't necessarily come together. "Actually my life became better after becoming HIV-positive."
Ross shared the floor with Johannes Petrus Heath, an Anglican priest from Namibia living with HIV, Erika Schuchardt, a professor at the University of Hanover, Anthony Allen, a psychiatrist from Jamaica, and Bernard Ugeux, a Roman Catholic theologian from France.
All five agreed that in both highly modernized societies and those ravaged by poverty and lack of basic health care, people yearning for healing of body and soul knock at the door of churches that are not always open. While healing does not necessarily mean physical cure, churches are called to be inclusive communities where people feel accepted and experience God's love and compassion.
"We need a theology of healing that includes the person, the community and the society," Allen affirmed. Such a theology has to "help Christians to deal with the stigma and discrimination that condemn people living with HIV/AIDS."
For that to happen, the theology must state clearly that "sickness, and particularly HIV/AIDS, are never a punishment for sin," Ugeux added.
Equipped with such a theology, Christian communities are able to provide the "welcoming space of acceptance and non-discrimination that allows people to face the crisis that illness poses to their lives," Schuchardt declared.
The World Conference of Religions for Peace is distributing materials on fighting discrimination and building healing communities through the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.
Participants in the world mission conference were also asked to support the Ecumenical HIV/AIDS initiative in Africa.
Workshops at the meeting indicated that even some in positions of pastoral and church leadership were not clear about the distinction between HIV and the outbreak of full-blown AIDS.
ìHaving HIV is not necessarily a death sentence if the right drugs and support are availableî, said one Christian doctor. She condemned drug companies and rich countries for denying affordable medicine to those in mortal need in order to bolster their own profits. ìThis is sinî, she told Ekklesia.
The theme of the historic WCC world mission conference, the most widely representative of its kind, is ìCome, Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile!î There have also been significant contributions on disability and on pastoral counselling across Christian traditions and cultures.
The World Council of Churches has just published a book of stories and examples of holistic health and healing in a Christian context. It illustrates a variety of approaches, ranging from the personal to the communal.
The mission conference has also heard strong condemnation of evangelists and ministries that use "miracle mongering" to make money and exercise power. But one speaker from Ghana said that the gathering had failed to take God's power seriously enough.