With a new sense of urgency in view of a pandemic which is growing exponentially, high level figures from many of the world's faiths have committed to exercise "stronger, more visible and practical leadership" in response to HIV, with an emphasis on eradicating the stigma and discrimination towards those affected.
"I am convinced that my faith must be more visible and active to halt the spread of HIV and reverse this pandemic", reads a "personal commitment to action" signed by some 40 Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh participants at a global Summit of High Level Religious Leaders that took place in the Netherlands from 22-23 March 2010.
The signatories promised to work "tirelessly to end all stigmatising attitudes and actions until people living with HIV are fully included in our religious communities and societies". They also committed to engage in a meaningful way with people living with HIV, protect human rights, influence decision makers and collaborate with leaders from different faiths.
The summit was attended by the executive directors of two United Nations agencies, the Joint Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) and the Population Fund (UNFPA). The AIDS ambassadors of the Netherlands and Sweden, and representatives of networks of people living with HIV and of organisations active in the response to HIV participated as well.
In a separate statement, participants called for "universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support". They also called for "a massive social mobilisation to prevent vertical transmission of HIV from parent to child".
During the three decades which have passed since the Human Immunodeficiency Virus was first identified, AIDS has led to the deaths of over 25 million people.
Today, more than 30 million live with the virus. Differences in access to treatment with modern and expensive anti-retroviral drugs laid bare gross inequalities, nationally and globally. The current economic climate combined with "AIDS fatigue" among media, policy and other decision-makers jeopardises the progress that has been made, say health advocates.
However, the pandemic also "grows exponentially", declared the participants at the summit. "For every two people put on treatment there are another five newly infected." Among the reasons for this are "secrecy and silence", which keep vulnerable populations from accessing prevention services, testing and treatment. "We must work to end the silence", they added.
"The stigma associated with HIV and AIDS has been like that of no other disease", said Abune Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, speaking at the summit. "Stigma and discrimination help make AIDS a silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it", added the patriarch, who is a president of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
For Abune Paulos, "religious leaders have a lot of assignments left undone. They themselves are not willing to talk about the HIV-related stigma and discrimination".
"We need to revisit the traditions of our respective religious institutions and engage ourselves more than ever in this regard", said the patriarch.
The Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the WCC, stressed the need for accountability in responding to the HIV pandemic. "HIV is an issue of human relationships, an issue of accountability", he said. Listening to those "who are vulnerable, even stigmatised", is the best way to "learn what accountability to the creator of all human beings means", added Tveit.
In revisiting religious traditions, accountability means to ponder the consequences of how their holy scriptures have been used. "We cannot erase or change historical texts, but we have to decide – and be accountable for – how we are using them."
For the Rev. Dr Ofelia Ortega, from the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba and the WCC president from the Latin American and Caribbean region, the response to the HIV cannot ignore the social and economic context of the pandemic.
"The message that we hear coming from the Latin American and the Caribbean is that people affected by the HIV do not only need compassion, but justice", she said. This call for justice means that responding to the HIV entails to struggle for the human rights of the people affected, including their right "to live, to work, to walk amongst us without being discriminated [against".
The summit was organised by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and Cordaid, a Dutch Catholic relief and development agency. It was supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNAIDS, the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS (INERELA+), the World AIDS Campaign and the European Council of Religious Leaders (Religions for Peace).
The co-chairs of the event were Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation; Rabbi David Rosen, director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee; Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary of the World YWCA; and the Rt Rev Gunnar Stålsett, bishop emeritus of the Church of Norway.
WCC work for an HIV-competent church - http://www.oikoumene.org/index.php?id=2267&rid=f_13758&mid=2026&aC=d3b10...
WCC General Secretary's intervention on "Mutual Accountability - People and Communities of Faith Living with HIV" - http://www.oikoumene.org/index.php?id=2267&rid=f_13758&mid=2026&aC=d3b10...
The statement of the Summit of High Level religious Leaders and the participants' "personal commitment to action" are available on the website of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance - http://www.oikoumene.org/index.php?id=2267&rid=f_13758&mid=2026&aC=d3b10...