Religious Leaders Highlight Critical Role of Faith-Based Efforts in AIDS Battle

( [email protected] ) Aug 26, 2007 04:23 AM EDT

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Religious leaders at the recent International Interfaith Conference on HIV/AIDS in Sri Lanka pledged to fight against the deadly disease by utilizing their places of worship, educational and available health facilities.

More than 200 Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim delegates across Asia attended last weekend’s conference, which began ahead of the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) that also took place in Colombo.

The three-day event – themed "Response of Faith Communities to HIV and AIDS - Have We Kept the Promise?" – was the collaboration of the Asian Interfaith Network on AIDS, the Christian Conference of Asia, and the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which is linked to the World Council of Churches.

According to organizers, it was announced at the conference that the Asian Interfaith Network on AIDS, together with other faith-based HIV/AIDS groups, would develop tools to train the leadership, enabling faith organizations to be effective public voices for raising awareness.

"There are still many [religious] leaders with the attitude that AIDS is not a problem that concerns them,” Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, chairperson of the Asian Interfaith Network on AIDS, told Ecumenical News International. “When faith communities take an ‘active role’ in HIV/AIDS awareness and care, the result has been encouraging."

Karuna Roy, who coordinates the HIV/AIDS work of the Church of North India, told delegates she has been branded a "shameless woman," even by some church officials, for speaking about sex in public during her HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns.

"Where there is strong pastoral leadership and congregational support, our programs have been successful," pointed Roy.

Dr. Manoj Kurian, a Malaysian medical doctor working for the World Council of Churches and with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance on HIV and AIDS, said the challenge was to make the faith communities "HIV competent."

"In the context of HIV/AIDS, we as people of faith have the responsibility to work to the highest possible standard," said Kurian.

At this past week’s ICAAP, which opened as the Aug. 17-19 interfaith conference concluded, around 2,500 delegates from 70 countries were also reminded of the significant role faith communities play in providing hope to HIV-positive people in addition to the prevention, care and support that many churches have increasingly taken upon themselves.

“Experience in Africa has shown that a well engaged and sensitized religious sector can play a critical role,” affirmed top AIDS activist Dr. Noerine Kaleeba, founder of The AIDS Support Organization in Africa, on Wednesday.

Kaleeba emphasized that hope is a “real tangible outcome” which will help determine the success of the AIDS battle.

“I think faith plays an important role in the mitigation of the AIDS pandemic,” she said.

According to reports, the top priority at the conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific was the battle against stigma and discrimination – a topic that consumed some three-quarters of a four-day AIDS conference which ended Thursday.

The 9th ICAAP will be held in 2009 in Bali, Indonesia.