The Catholic Church in India has announced a new HIV/AIDS policy whose aims include combating prejudice and promoting access to health treatment for people affected by the disease.
"HIV/AIDS is not just a medical concern, but is a developmental issue," declared Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), at the release of the Church's policy in New Delhi.
Chiming with comments from other Christian churches, the policy says: "We do not approve of any sort of discrimination or hostility directed against people living with HIV/AIDS. This is unjust and immoral."
However, the bishops are being criticised by health campaigners for sticking rigidly to the Catholic Church's traditional refusal to countenance the use of condoms, even though they could help save lives.
Anbumani Ramadoss, India's federal health minister, has commented that while it is relatively easy to organize health-care initiatives in major cities, Catholic officials have been "showing the way" in providing medical attention to "remote and far-flung areas" in northern and eastern India.
Archbishop Bernard Moras, chair of Indian bishops' health care commission, told a gathering of Catholic health workers in New Delhi that 85 percent the Church's 3000 health-care institutions serve rural populations.
While the Indian Church now operates 64 centres for the care of advanced AIDS patients, Archbishop Moras said that in the new nationwide Catholic policy, the Church will show "renewed commitment for wider reach out especially to the under-served areas."
AIDS has reached epidemic proportions in India, with the conservative government data acknowledging over 5 million HIV cases-- the second-largest in the world, after South Africa. Non-government experts put the figure much higher.
Christians, numbering 24 million, constitute some 2.3 per cent of India's billion strong population. Three-quarters of the Christian population is Catholic.
Recently a senior Vatican leader declared that the Catholic Church will also give priority to working with other Christian denominations and faith communities to fight poverty and AIDS in Africa.