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Religious Leadership in Response to HIV

 High level religious and spiritual leaders from many of the world’s major religions pledged “stronger, more visible and practical leadership in the response to HIV” as the first global High Level Summit of Religious Leaders on HIV that was held 22-23 March 2010 in Den Dolder, The Netherlands.

Some 40 Baha'í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders met together, 22-23 March, with the Executive Directors of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the AIDS Ambassadors of The Netherlands and Sweden, leaders and representatives of networks of people living with HIV and other organisations active in the response to HIV.

Participants affirmed in their concluding statement the “renewed sense of urgency” to prioritize and strengthen the response to HIV. Such response includes “holistic prevention” in addition to reaching universal access to treatment, care and support. The statement called for the “universal respect for the human rights of all people living with and affected by and at risk of HIV infection” and the “respect for the dignity of every human being”. Leaders also called for “a massive social mobilization” to support services for women to eliminate the transmission of HIV from mother to child.

In addition religious leaders drafted and personally signed a pledge to commit themselves to strengthened efforts to respond to HIV. The pledge includes “deepening meaningful engagement with people living with HIV” and “acting decisively to protect human rights within my faith community; through collaboration among other religious leaders of different faiths; and by influencing local, national, regional and global decision-making processes on HIV.“

"Together we are greater and bigger than each one alone,” stated Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA in her address to the Summit. “Our work together proves that interventions can be successful and sustainable if change is inclusive, if it emerges from within the faith and culture of the people themselves, if people of all age groups and living or not living with HIV are secure in their sense of belonging and when they are fully engaged, and when all partners are respected and their contributions valued,” she said.

“We are here to address important human and spiritual aspects of the epidemic. And we will be doing so with a sense of humility for the harm that people have suffered in the name of religion, but also with the confidence that faith matters and that faith can make us proud”, said Bishop Emeritus of the Church of Norway and Moderator of European Council of Religious Leaders, Dr. Gunnar Stålsett.

Religious leaders speaking at the Summit emphasised that AIDS is an illness, and not a sin and underlined that God is for everybody and that everybody is equally important to God. “Due to our silence, people are suffering. We need to speak out”, said Dr Mohamed Gemea from the office of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. He pointed out that every person – ill or healthy – is part of the same human family.  

The summit also stressed the importance of examining cultural and religious traditions and texts in order to bridge the gap between the religious message and the life people in the communities live.

“There was always a commitment for this summit to have a process of religious leaders accompanied by people living with HIV,” said Rev. J.P. Mokgethi-Heath, director of advocacy and partner relations with INERELA+ (International Network of People Living with or Personally Affected by HIV) who served on the Interfaith Steering Committee overseeing the event. “These accompaniers, who are people living with HIV, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, women and men and youth, played a critical part in making HIV real for every participant. Without their presence and input, the summit could not have achieved the successes of inclusivity which it did,” he stated.

This global high level summit builds on considerable efforts and engagement by religious communities in the response to HIV at local, national and international levels over many years. The hope is that the summit not only strengthens existing efforts but builds new momentum in the response to HIV.

For many, the statement of personal commitment will not only engage more religious leaders but add a vital component of accountability.

Rev. Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said that religious leadership needs to be held accountable in order to be able to hold the governments accountable.

Together We Must Do More - My Personal Commitment to Action (EN)

Responsible Partnership, Challenging Stigma and Discrimination: HIV prevention in action (EN)

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Organizers

The Summit is being planned by an Interfaith Steering Committee (see below) convened by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance who is helping to coordinate the project along with Cordaid www.cordaid.com in The Netherlands. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is an important contributor and supporter of the Summit. UNAIDS, INERELA+ and the World AIDS Campaign are collaborating partners represented on the steering committee. 

Financial Support is being provided by the Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish governments, European Council of Religious Leaders (WCRP), Cordaid, ICCO and Kerk in Actie, Prisma, AIDS Fonds, World Vision International, American Jewish World Service, Marion and Stanley Bergman, UNAIDS, Ford Foundation and the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.

HIV Interfaith Steering Committee

The HIV Interfaith Steering Committee is responsible for planning and organizing this Summit of High Level Religious Leaders in Response to HIV.
The members of the Steering Committee are:

  1. Mr. Moulana Abul Kalam Azad, Chairman, Masjid Council for Community Advancement (Bangladesh)
  2. Ms. Geertje van Mensvoort, HIV and AIDS Advisor, Cordaid (The Netherlands)
  3. Dr. Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, Chairman, Asian Interfaith Network on HIV/AIDS; Vice Rector, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (Thailand)
  4. Dr. Anish Dua, Faculty, The Art of Living Foundation; Professor, Zoology Department, Guru Nanak Dev University (India)
  5. Mr. René Grotenhuis, General Director, Cordaid (The Netherlands)
  6. Ms. Ruth Messinger, President, American Jewish World Service (United States)
  7. Rev. JP Mokgethi-Heath, Director, Advocacy and Partner Relations, INERELA+ (South Africa)
  8. Dr. Peter Okaalet, Senior Director, Health, HIV and AIDS Policy; MAP International (Kenya)
  9. Ms. Sally Smith, Partnerships Adviser, UNAIDS (Switzerland)
  10. Mr. Marcel van Soest, Executive Director, World AIDS Campaign (The Netherlands)
  11. Ms. Sara Speicher, Communications Consultant, Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (UK), convenor of the Steering Committee
  12. Bishop Gunnar J. Stålsett, Bishop Emeritus of Oslo; Moderator, European Council of Religious Leaders, World Conference of Religions for Peace