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Faith groups urged to unite in fight against HIV

Jan Beagle

Religious groups were on Saturday, July 17, 2010, urged to work together to tackle the AIDS pandemic, at a gathering of global faith representatives in Vienna.

Speaking to some two hundred Christian, Jewish and Islamic representatives from Africa, Asia and Europe, Jan Beagle, Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS said, “There is much more that unites us than divides us, in our response to HIV. We are all in this together. Success depends on our collective efforts.”

According to a news release from Tearfund, a Christian development agency, the faith meeting came on the eve of the international AIDS conference, AIDS 2010, a biennial gathering that brings together some 20,000 health workers, scientists, academics, grassroots workers and people living with HIV and AIDS.

Jan Beagle said, “Sometimes we can find ourselves with very different perspectives on these thorny issues and we need to strive towards dialogue and approaches that work to save lives, that empower people living with HIV, women, and marginalized groups within societies to take leadership roles within their communities to eliminate stigma, discrimination and violence.”

The Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, challenged the question at the heart of the conference, “HIV: What’s faith got to do with it?”

He said, “The question is odd. If we replace HIV in that question with any other disease, why shouldn’t faith compel us to do everything we possibly can to tackle the disease? Our faith compels us to act and not to get stuck in discussions we don’t need, such as about sin.”

Faith representatives addressing the conference made scant reference to the “mixed record” of faith groups in tackling HIV.

Speaking after the conference, Veena O’Sullivan, HIV Unit Manager for Tearfund, said, “The church’s record is not unblemished. Judgmental attitudes, which see HIV as a punishment for sin and immorality, have contributed to creating another epidemic – of stigma and discrimination. HIV is not a moral judgment but a virus that can affect anyone. It is vital that the church acknowledges and addresses harmful attitudes where they remain.”

Outlining what she saw as a role for faith based organizations, Ms. Beagle had said, “There is sometimes a disconnect between the scientific world and the world of culture, religion and communities. But faith communities, having been involved in HIV prevention, treatment, care and support from the earliest days, can help to bridge this gap very effectively. And we need your help more today than ever before.”

Veena O’Sullivan said that she welcomed Ms. Beagle’s comments, stressing the positive role that the Christian church can play. “Where the church is at its best, it is a very powerful partner in the fight against HIV, with its unparallel reach and its mandate to serve poor communities. We know from our work across the developing world that the Christian church is an integral part of the community, mobilizing thousands of volunteers to provide care and support for people affected by HIV and AIDS.”

An uphill struggle lies ahead for those working at the frontline of HIV and AIDS, despite significant advances in access to treatment and a 17% drop in new HIV infections worldwide since 2001.

Cover of Dan Wooding's book

Jan Beagle added, “The global AIDS response is at a tipping point. 2010 was meant to be the year to celebrate the achievement of universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. Yet HIV prevention services are only reaching a fraction of the people who need them. For every two people starting treatment, another five become infected with the virus.”

AIDS 2010 runs from July 18-23, 2010, in Vienna, www.Aids2010.org

The ecumenical pre-conference on faith was organized by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (www.e-alliance.ch).

Tearfund is one of the UK’s leading relief and development agencies, working in partnership with churches around the world to tackle the causes and effects of poverty. www.tearfund.org

Note: ANS founder, Dan Wooding, has written a book called “He Intends Victory: Real-life Stories of Christian Living with AIDS and How Jesus Touched Them.” To get a free copy, just go to: http://heintendsvictory.org/products-page

Dan Wooding, Assist News Service

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