Faith-based campaigners and religious leaders say churches should not relax their efforts to deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic despite UN figures showing a drop in the number of people worldwide living with the virus.
"This is not the time for complacency nor apathy," said South African Anglican Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu in a 30 November statement released by the World Aids Campaign to mark World Aids Day on 1 December 2007. "It is the time for compassionate leadership."
Statistics released in November by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization have revised the estimated number of people living with HIV down from nearly 40 million to 33.2 million.
"We welcome any indication that fewer people are living with HIV, whether it is through more accurate statistics or because a strong response in some areas is making a positive impact," said Linda Hartke, coordinator of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. "But in no way can we relax our efforts. HIV remains a devastating disease not just for individuals, but for families, communities and nations."
The Geneva-based alliance is an international network of churches and church-related organizations cooperating in advocacy on global trade and HIV and AIDS. Its participants include the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, Caritas Internationalis, and more than 100 other organizations.
In London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, also said there was no room for complacency and that churches needed to be honest about their own failures in language and practice.
"The churches have not always challenged as they should the stigma that is attached to HIV and AIDS in many countries," he said. "They have failed to say that those living with HIV and AIDS are God’s beloved children, with dignity, liberty and freedom."
The Rev Hielke Wolters, the WCC's director of justice, diakonia and responsibility for creation, noted that the majority of the 33 million people living with HIV are believed not to know they are HIV positive.
"These reductions in estimates cannot lower our commitment and our focus to overcome this preventable and treatable disease," said Wolters, adding that the rate of 6800 new HIV infections every day particularly in low and middle income countries and among women and youth demonstrated that urgent and intensive actions are still needed.
"Numbers are important as one factor that give an indication of the extent of the problem and the scale of the response needed," said the Rev Christo Greyling, chair of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living With or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS. "Lower prevalence numbers for people living with HIV does not reduce the stigma which prevents people from accessing services and affects the lives of children and adults affected with HIV."
[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.]