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Church Leaders Chastised for Absence in AIDS Battle

UNAIDS and NGO heads used humor to chastise church leaders at the Ecumenical AIDS 2006 Pre-Conference for their lack of involvement in the fight against AIDS in the last 25 years.
( [email protected] ) Aug 14, 2006 01:05 PM EDT

UNAIDS and NGO heads used humor to chastise church leaders at the Ecumenical AIDS 2006 Pre-Conference for their lack of involvement in the fight against AIDS in the last 25 years.

Speakers of a plenary session on Thursday described the challenges of working with religious groups and the need for "frank" dialogue about sex. Presenters at the opening day plenary also spoke about the roles of religious leaders in combating stigma and discrimination as well as the debate between religious and secular organizations about whether to promote the use of condoms.

"If we don’t stop spending time fighting each other or fighting to prove whose dogma is right, and start figuring out how we are going to work together to effectively fight AIDS, this horrid pandemic – which is probably the worst that we’ll ever see – will just continue to rage out of control and we won’t make any advances in the fight against AIDS," said Eric Sawyer, co-founder of ACT UP New York, according to a report released by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance on Friday. Eric has been living with HIV since 1981 and has protested numerous times the church’s position on HIV/AIDS victims. He noted that the focus has not yet shifted from opposition to collaboration.

Rachel Ong, of the Asia Pacific Network of People living with HIV/AIDS also shared about her experience with the church and living with HIV.

"I was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 18 in 1998," she said. "I remember that it took me almost two years to be able to speak to anybody in my church about my status. Sex remains very taboo subject."

Ong now works in art therapy for positive people in Beijing and has stopped attending church regularly. "You don’t talk about sex in a holy place," she said and noted that this silence contributes to the spread of HIV.

The two-day ecumenical pre-conference, Aug. 10-11, was held ahead of the world’s largest HIV/AIDS conference, the 16th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2006) which opens on Sunday. Over 500 people are gathered for the ecumenical pre-conference and for today’s interfaith pre-conference in Toronto.

UNAIDS Special Adviser Calle Almedal also agrees that the Church needs to be more open and willing to talk about sex in order to help prevent and reach out to those with HIV/AIDS.

"Poverty does not drive this pandemic. Unprotected sex drives this pandemic," said Almedal. "We need to start talking about this."

The AIDS specialist said neutral conversation about human sexuality is needed without condemnation.

"I think that churches and their leaders in all parts of the world, need to learn to talk in a neutral way about human sexualities, without condemning anyone who does anything that we think is against our morals or our Bible or whatever," he said. "We are not going to get anywhere stopping further transmission of HIV if we continue to condemn people," he said.

However, Almedal recognized individuals and organizations associated with a faith group have contributed to the combat against AIDS in the past 25 years but are often not recognized by the church or under-recognized at the United Nations and the secular world.

"So those are my three challenges: Getting the leaders on board, a much more clear and non-judgmental language about human sexuality, and eradication of stigma and discrimination. Those for me are not empty words," Almedal said. "I wouldn’t stand here and say this today if I didn’t think that you can be the change agents. I profoundly believe that once we have changed the attitudes and the behaviors within the churches, then we can stand up and change the rest of the world."