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Faith leaders look at next steps in AIDS response

14. June 2011

    (New York) – Now that United Nations member states have agreed on a new global document with strengthened measurable targets for responding to HIV and AIDS, what's next for the faith community in the fight against the AIDS epidemic?

    "People of faith and faith communities have to remain diligent and engaged in the HIV response and be at the forefront for mutual accountability in order to meet and hopefully exceed the goals of the document," said Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, executive director of the HIV & AIDS Network of the United Church of Christ, a member of the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA). "It's our moral obligation to do that."

    "It's not only a dream to end this epidemic, but now it's within our sights that we can actually do it,” he said. “Failure to mobilize the resources and build the capacity needed would be inexcusable, a moral failure."

    At the 8-10 June high-level meeting at the United Nations, the global body's member states agreed on a new political declaration which, among other things, calls for universal access to treatment by the year 2015 for the prevention of the spread of HIV. The document specifically commits to getting 15 million people on anti-retroviral treatment by that date. Other important commitments to be achieved by 2015 include reducing sexual transmission and transmission among people injecting drugs by 50%, eliminating vertical transmission (transmission from mother to child), and reducing TB deaths by 50%.

    According to Peter Prove, executive director of the EAA, the inclusion especially of the clear time-bound numerical targets for access to treatment was “a significant advance, a major victory”.

    "Universal access (to HIV and AIDS treatment) is the only way to reduce the number of HIV-positive people," said Pacem Kawonga, a Malawi AIDS activist with the DREAM Project, of the Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio.

    When asked of his opinions of the document – which included language about the need for the use of condoms to reduce the spread of the HIV virus – Schuenemeyer said: "Faith leaders engaged in the process and helped make sure that some of the things that are critically important were included, such as naming key populations and promoting sexual and reproductive health."

    He added: "It could have said more, but overall, the document has enough in it for everyone to do their part. We all need to be engaged in that process."

    Rev. Lisandro Orlov, a pastor of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina based in Buenos Aires, agreed, calling the document a "work in progress" that built on previous documents. Now it is time, he said, for faith communities to read and use the document "from a theological perspective". He felt the document lends itself to such a reading, keeping in mind that it is, in some respects "the minimum to go forward, not the maximum".

    It is vitally important, he said, for churches and denominations to be converted to an inclusive vision of care and support for those living with HIV and AIDS.

    To that end, Rev. Gunilla Hallonsten, acting policy director for the Church of Sweden, announced, in tandem with the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, a joint statement on 10 June calling on faith-based organizations to "be inclusive of all groups in need" in the fight against HIV-related stigmatization; "refrain from contributing to exclusion and marginalization"; and recognize and celebrate "that their members are diverse and include people of different sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions."

    Prove remarked that EAA members participating in the events in New York represented “a diversity of theologies and perspectives, but a common commitment to and engagement in the struggle against HIV and AIDS”. “The God-given dignity of all human beings is”, he declared “the foundation of this shared commitment.” 

    Msgr. Robert Vitillo, who heads the Catholic humanitarian alliance Caritas Internationalis' delegation to the United Nations in Geneva, reiterated the importance the faith community has played in the response to HIV and AIDS. He noted that in some African countries, as much as three-quarters of health care is provided by the church.

    In such facilities, the treatment of AIDS-related illnesses is performed in tandem with the treatment of other medical conditions, such as tuberculosis, which church-based institutions had treated well before the appearance of HIV. In such environments, medical treatment is never solely about medicine alone, Vitillo said.

    "HIV is very much tied in with the many vulnerabilities of people," he said of those who are isolated, victims of stigma and discrimination, and living in economically impoverished conditions.

    "You can't isolate the response (to HIV and AIDS) and make it solely medical," Vitillo said.

    Vitillo said strides made in the last decade should not overshadow the major challenges facing those fighting AIDS – be they that for every one person being medically treated, two are not, and the fact that globally, 7,000 persons a day are still being infected.

    "I'm really concerned that we not paint too rosy a picture," he said. "We can't forget the major challenges ahead of us."

    Realism mixed with optimism at an interfaith prayer breakfast held 10 June, the last day of the three-day global meeting. The breakfast was co-organized by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, UNAIDS, and UNFPA in collaboration with other religious organizations, and was hosted by the Ford Foundation.

    There was a growing sense expressed at the breakfast of the need for religious communities to build bridges and find common ground with non-religious groups, particularly with groups who have been stigmatized.

    Pablo Torres Aguilera, 25, of Mexico, a youth advocate on HIV issues affiliated with the group dance4life, urged that religious leaders take up the cause of "healing without judgement" and reminded them that those in stigmatized groups "are still religious, we are still spiritual beings."

    Dr Asha-Rose Migiro, deputy secretary general of the United Nations, reminded the audience of faith leaders and others that those from religious institutions can be among the most effective "advocates against stigma".

    "You are natural activists who can change attitudes. You know that protecting lives is as important as saving souls."

    In a final prayer, the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, moderator of Religions for Peace, urged all to "move from words of comfort to courageous action".

    The text of the political declaration and the webcast of the interfaith prayer breakfast are available at: http://www.e-alliance.ch/en/s/hivaids/accountability/ungass/

    For more information and photos from the interfaith prayer breakfast, contact: Sara Speicher, sspeicher@e-alliance.ch, +44 7821 860 723.

The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is a broad international network of churches and Christian organizations cooperating in advocacy on food and HIV and AIDS. The Alliance is based in Geneva, Switzerland. For more information, see http://www.e-alliance.ch/

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