40 leaders of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Eastern Europe and Central Asia discussed ways for churches to become more actively involved in the struggle against the spread of AIDS during their weeklong consultation in Odessa, Ukraine, April 20-25.
The conference, jointly organized by the LWF and the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Ukraine (DELKU), found that churches can collaborate with regional and internationl NGOs and municipal institutions and government offices in planning and carrying out projects to halt the spread of AIDS. Churches were also encouraged to actively struggle against the stigmatization and discrimination against people infected with HIV/AIDS.
One of the keynote speakers, Anja Teltschick of the AIDS Foundation East-West (AFEW), said churches are especially important in providing information, awareness raising, advocacy, and in taking leadership. Additionally, since churches can offer a spiritual healing to the process, those infected with the virus can even gain psychological support and healing.
Teltschik said also that the HIV/AIDS pandemic should be seen as a East-West problem, rather than just a North-South issue, since in eastern Europe, there is a lack of NGOs to assist the cause, similar to what is opening in Africa.
According to Dr. Arkadiusz Majszyk, coordinator of the UN AIDS program (UNAIDS) for Moldova, the Ukraine and Belarus, the HIV infection rate is staggering. In a period of one year alone, the viral infection grew from 1.2 to 1.8 million. He reported that in Russia, there are 300,000 known HIV-infected persons, but the actual number is estimated to be two or three times that amount.
The fearful part of this is that while the European church faces a rapidly aging demographic, the bulk of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is spreading among the youth. In Ukraine and Russia, 80 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS are between 15 and 29 years old.
“An effective fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic must involve young people and make use of all available structures and channels for awareness raising,” said Majszyk.
Majszyk also said, according to the Lutheran World Federation news, that there must be “an end to the stigmatization and exclusion of intravenous drug users and sex workers, if the HIV/AIDS battle is to be won.”
Therefore, the effort against HIV/AIDS must prioritize care and support, as well as advocacy and prevention.
Ultimately, the role of the churches and other faith communities are critical, since they “well-functioning networks and significant influence in society,” he said.
The Ukraine consultation was the last of a series of four conventions under the LWF global campaign against HIV/AIDS. The campaign, which was adopted in 2002, is dubbed “Compassion, Conversion, Care: Responding as Churches to the HIV/AIDS Pandemic,” and has had consultations in countries around the world.