Religious leaders commit to action on HIV/AIDS

By Sara Speicher, Vienna
Source: Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance
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In the middle of thousands of AIDS researchers and activists from around the world, religious leaders have reaffirmed their pledge to fight stigma and discrimination, promote effective prevention and insure quality treatment and care for those living with HIV and AIDS. "Religious leaders have moved from an initial position of passive observation and ideological opposition to the promotion of key prevention methods and a sustained commitment to fighting the epidemic," said Hassan Cherry, director of Think Positive, an organization of HIV-positive people in Lebanon. Cherry spoke at a July 20 press conference at the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna. "There is no longer the talk about sinning and repentance that prevailed in the eighties and nineties. Instead, today we hear religious leaders urging the acceptance of people living with HIV and AIDS and preaching on behalf of community solidarity and compassion," Cherry said.


The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, a network of churches and church groups working together around issues of HIV and AIDS, used the Vienna conference to collect more signatures on a document first signed at a meeting of high level religious leaders in March in the Netherlands. It calls for a personal commitment "to work tirelessly to end all stigmatizing attitudes and actions" that might block the full inclusion of HIV-positive people in faith communities. Signed by Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh leaders, it includes specific commitments to people living with HIV, women and girls, children and youth.


"This personal commitment calls for stronger, more visible and practical leadership in the response to HIV and AIDS. How are we able to live up to our promises of what needs to be done?" asked the Rev. Dr. Richard Fee, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Canada and chair of the board of directors of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. Michel Sidibé, the executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said the religious leaders' statement strengthened the global response to HIV and AIDS. "This commitment by faith leaders can break down the wall of stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV," said Mr Sidibé. "These leaders can restore the dignity and respect of communities affected by AIDS."

Cherry, who participated in the March meeting where the document was agreed upon, said he considered the role of religious leaders "to be as important as the role of governments, owing to the great influence they can have on people's perspectives and thoughts." He said the leaders' commitment "is already a big step towards action and must be continued by a direct and honest conversation between congregation and community, breaking the barrier of silence and promoting HIV prevention in all manners and ways despite the taboos." Matthew Southwell, the program manager of the International Network of People Who Use Drugs, also spoke at the press conference, saying that he had "experienced religious leaders at their best and sadly sometimes at their worst."

Drug users and others "have felt judged, condemned and abandoned by religious leaders," Southwell said. "However, we have also worked with some exceptional local religious leaders who have met us with humanity and compassion and ministered to our communities in our time of need." He said he hoped the statements of personal commitment "will insure that the global response to HIV includes the spiritual and pastoral aspects of our lives as people who have traditionally been viewed as other or outsiders."

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the general secretary of the World YWCA and a signer of the March statement, said she appreciated the specific commitments to women and girls contained in the document. "The commitment that we made affirms the leadership of women and girls in the response to HIV and AIDS," she said. "It also affirms that women are taking a lead role in terms of providing information and services" to those living with the virus.

The AIDS ambassador of the Swedish government, Lennart Hjelmåker, reminded religious leaders that they now face "the challenge to live up to what you have signed and to show leadership in breaking the silence." He said the March statement showed that religious leaders "dare to address the more complex issues of society, such as how we respond to HIV and AIDS." Hjelmåker urged them to make good on one of the commitments that had been made, by "challenging and supporting governments to meet their moral duty to implement their promises on HIV in their priorities, practices and financial support."

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