International meeting urges religious groups to back HIV/AIDs struggle

By Ecumenical News International
August 24, 2007

An international interfaith conference on HIV/AIDS has called on religious leaders to use their places of worship, and educational and health facilities to help in the fight against HIV and AIDS - writes Anto Akkara.

"We acknowledge that we have not done enough in this area, and have at times contributed to their (those living with HIV/AIDS) sense of exclusion and stigmatisation," participants said in a statement during the 17 to 19 August International Interfaith Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

More than 200 Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim delegates from across Asia attended the conference of the theme, "Response of Faith Communities to HIV and AIDS - Have We Kept the Promise?"

The event was jointly organized by the Asian Interfaith Network on AIDS, the Christian Conference of Asia, and the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which is linked to the World Council of Churches.

The interfaith gathering, held ahead of the secular 19-23 August eighth Asia Pacific AIDS conference, also taking place in Colombo, declared that the Asian Interfaith Network on AIDS, along with HIV/AIDS groups in faith communities, will develop "tools to train the leadership".

The organizers explained this would enable faith organizations to "be effective public voices for raising awareness and reducing the stigma and discrimination so often associated with HIV and AIDS".

Karuna Roy, who coordinates the HIV/AIDS work of the Church of North India, told delegates she has been branded a "shameless woman", even by some church officials, for speaking about sex in public during her HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns. As an example of the sensitivity of the subject, one pastor walked out when Roy began speaking about sexual behaviour during an HIV lecture at a meeting in India.

Roy pointed out, however, that, "Where there is strong pastoral leadership and congregational support, our programmes have been successful".

When Roman Catholic nun Mary Magdalene Francis from the Church of the Good Shepherd in Colombo informed her parish priest that she was going to attend the AIDS conference, the priest asked her 'Why should you go for this conference? What have you got to do with this conference?"

Buddhist monk Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, chairperson of the Asian Interfaith Network on AIDS, based at Chiang Mai in Thailand, told Ecumenical News International, "There are still many [religious] leaders with the attitude that AIDS is not a problem that concerns them."

Doojai pointed out, however, that when faith communities take an "active role" in HIV/AIDS awareness and care, "the result has been encouraging". He said Buddhist monks had played a key role in reducing HIV infection in Thailand, where more than one thousand monks are active members in the "monknet" for HIV care that he heads.

Manoj Kurian, a Malaysian medical doctor who works for the World Council of Churches and with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance on HIV and AIDS, said the challenge was to make the faith communities "HIV competent". "In the context of HIV/AIDS, we as people of faith have the responsibility to work to the highest possible standard," said Dr Kurian.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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