Faith leaders can play a key role in the fight against the HIV pandemic if their public statements help combat stigma and discrimination, a meeting of faith groups in Vienna in advance of the 18th International AIDS Conference has heard.
"Religious leaders have the trust and confidence of their communities and can help break these barriers and create a more supportive environment," the Netherlands AIDS ambassador Marijke Wijnroks told a 17 July 2010 multi-faith conference in the Austrian capital.
Wijnroks acknowledged that faith communities have been "on the frontline of the response to HIV and AIDS". Still, religious leaders through their language have also contributed to the burden of the disease, she warned.
"Public positions and statements of some faith-based organisations have at times been unhelpful, or even harmful," said Wijnroks. "Deeply judgmental comments on populations such as men having sex with men and people living with HIV have alienated people at risk and contributed to stigma and discrimination."
Earlier, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, told the meeting that faith leaders need to exercise care about the way they use statements from the Scriptures when dealing with HIV and AIDS.
"Language is very much a matter of ideology and power," said Tveit, a Norwegian theologian who took office as the head of the Geneva-based WCC in January 2010. This means, "not only being accountable about what pieces of our faith texts we quote but how we use these texts".
In recent months church leaders in countries including Uganda and Malawi have supported criminal penalties being applied against homosexuals. AIDS campaigners warn this can mean people at risk from HIV being driven underground.
Tveit was part of an opening panel at the multi-faith meeting looking at how faith traditions promote work towards universal access to HIV treatment, care, support and prevention.
"This has to do with a basic issue of justice," said the WCC leader. Tveit recalled that back in 1987 the main governing body of the WCC had affirmed the "right to medical and pastoral care regardless of socio-economic status, race, sex, sexual orientation or sexual relationship". He said, "We should keep our commitments to do what we know we have to do."
The International AIDS Conference is held every two years. It is drawing more than 20,000 medical professionals, scientists, policy makers, persons living with HIV and others working in the field of HIV and AIDS. In 2010 it runs from 18 to 23 July.
Jan Beagle, the deputy executive director of UNAIDS, the joint United Nations programme on HIV and AIDS, said faith communities can help bridge a "disconnect" between the scientific world and the world of culture, religion and communities.
"We are not asking religious leaders to hand out condoms, unless that is acceptable within your traditions, but to partner with us in approaches to HIV prevention education, health care and referral," Beagle told the faith groups' conference.
UNAIDS is to launch a high-level commission on HIV prevention, with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu as one of its co-chairs, during the Vienna conference.
The multi-faith conference was organised by a working group convened by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, an international network of churches and church-related organisations.
"The world expects people of faith to be working together," said the Rev Richard Fee, the alliance's chairperson, a Presbyterian church leader from Canada. "We have recognised that and it is time we started doing that."
Stephen Brown, managing editor of ENInews (www.eni.ch), is in Vienna as part of an Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance media team.