Church leaders in India, aware that Christian institutions are responsible for running many of the country's medical facilities, are deeply concerned that the world's second-most populous nation now has the most people with HIV and AIDS - writes Anto Akkara for Ecumenical News International.
On World AIDS Day (01 December 2006), Protestant and Catholic archbishops had led a candlelit procession in Delhi. On the march, were Church of North India (CNI) Bishop Karam Masih, Roman Catholic Archbishop Vincent M. Concessao and Vijay Aruldas, general secretary of the Christian Medical Association of India (CMAI).
"AIDS is a very serious problem. That is why we are undertaking this procession," Bishop Masih told the Christian gathering in the courtyard of the Catholic cathedral.
Church health workers, activists, Christian school students and hospital staff joined the march organized by CMAI in collaboration with the healthcare commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI).
"Everyone has a right to dignity, but HIV positive people are being denied this right," said Aruldas who heads the CMAI, the health arm of the National Council of Churches in India representing 29 Orthodox and Protestant churches. It runs 330 Christian hospitals and has more than 6,000 health professionals among its members.
Ahead of the international AIDS Day, UNAIDS had noted that India has more than 5.7 million HIV positive cases - overtaking South Africa as the country with the highest number of carriers of the virus.
In its 2006 report, UNAIDS further pointed out that only 7 per cent of those requiring treatment are receiving it while it is projected that the number of estimated AIDS-related deaths in India in 2005 was more than 400,000, the highest in the world.
"Unless the government and others start focusing on making [anti-retroviral] drugs freely available, the death-toll is only going to rise," Aruldas told ENI.
Meanwhile, the Catholic healthcare commission in its AIDS day message warned: "The impact of the stigma from HIV/AIDS can be as detrimental as the virus itself."
[With grateful 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]