Religious leaders seek deeper commitment on AIDS

Toronto (ENInews) Leaders from five world religions gathered in Toronto just ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 to encourage their peers to deepen their engagement and action on HIV-AIDS "by addressing the difficult issues raised by the pandemic, in dialogue with people living with HIV."

At the same time, the faith leaders expressed “dismay at the recent drop in funding for the AIDS response just as recent statistics show the effectiveness of prevention and treatment approaches.”

The 29-30 November conference brought 15 Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders together to assess faith communities’ progress in fulfilling earlier commitments on HIV activism and awareness. They were joined by organizations representing people living with HIV and global agencies on the front lines of the battle against the disease, including the United Nations agency UNAIDS and the World AIDS Campaign.

Organized by the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and hosted by the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the gathering cast a critical eye at faith groups’ approaches, examined ongoing issues of stigma, denial and shame, and lamented the global drop in funding the fight against HIV-AIDS.

The silver lining in the dark clouds, they heard, is that AIDS appears to have peaked over a decade ago. According to Sally Smith of UNAIDS, “the good news is that new inflections and deaths are decreasing. Treatment is highly effective as a form of prevention.”

In 2010, the number of people dying from AIDS around the world declined for the third consecutive year, falling to 1.8 million from a peak of 2.2 million. But as Smith noted, the figures also show there are more people living with HIV: 34 million, with 27 million new infections last year.

Smith told ENInews that UNAIDS is “very concerned” about drops in funding the battle against HIV-AIDS. “If we do not fund the AIDS response, the cost will be paid not just in dollars, but we will have a more expensive response. It will be paid in lives,” Smith said.

That sentiment was echoed by Peter Prove of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, who said the world needs a further $22 billion “in order to reach sustainability” in the campaign against HIV-AIDS. “Everything that’s been achieved is very much jeopardized by a failure to push forward,” Prove said.

He said research shows an over 90 percent reduction in HIV transmission as a result of treatment. “If we don’t take advantage of that science, then we are missing a huge opportunity to save lives.”

“An AIDS-free generation is within our reach,” Prove said.

The Toronto gathering assessed efforts to implement the recommendations of a meeting of faith leaders responding to HIV, held in the Netherlands in March 2010, and discussed ways to strengthen religious leadership.

Delegates noted that last year’s gathering produced a statement, “Together We Must Do More,” that stressed religious leaders’ personal commitment to exercise “stronger, more visible, and practical leadership in the response to the HIV pandemic.”

Participants at the Toronto meeting “strongly encouraged listening and enabling dialogue between religious leaders and people living with HIV as an important way to hear the realities on the ground and find common ground and language to address issues related to human rights and dignity, sexuality and gender equality,” said the gathering’s final statement.

Still a nagging issue among some faith leaders is that AIDS-HIV is seen as a moral and sexual failing, the Toronto gathering heard. But those with HIV or AIDS, “are part of the churches and religious communities,” said Prove. “So you can’t have this ‘us and them’ approach.”

UNAIDS has estimated that one-quarter of all support in the area of HIV comes from faith-based institutions. Smith said that in Africa, the figure could be as high as 70 percent.

Akhtarul Wasey, a professor of Islamic studies in India and head of that country’s interfaith coalition on HIV-AIDS, said he’s seeing “an awakening” in which “people have realized that this problem does not recognize regions or religions.” Religious leaders, he said, “should not be judgmental. We should not assume the role of God.”