Churches are engaged at the grassroots level throughout the world in the response to HIV and AIDS, but the struggle against the disease and those stigmatized for being HIV positive needs to continue, say church leaders.
Two million people a year become HIV-positive and many of those infected are not even aware of their HIV status, said moderator Claus Grue as he introduced a group of panelists during the June 23-28 meeting of the main governing body of the World Council of Churches between its assemblies, its central committee.
"The billboards have been taken down, but within the WCC we realize it [HIV and AIDS] is not over, and we need to keep up the campaign to raise awareness in our member churches," said Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, WCC associate general secretary, referring to some African countries.
She noted that, in her home environment in Malawi, she and her immediate family have been directly impacted by the disease.
Phiri and the other panelists stressed that HIV and AIDS is a "medical condition and not a moral condition".
The panelists also agreed that social and gender justice issues are all involved in taking care of the problem.
"We don't know when it will be over. We will continue campaigning until it is over," said Phiri.
She noted that WCC involvement with HIV and AIDS goes back to 1984 when awareness was just beginning.
Phiri said that, with faith-driven affirmation of universal humanity, the WCC has worked with other ecumenical partners as well as the World Health Organization and later UNAIDS.
Metropolitan Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East said, "For us, the Orthodox, our theology is centered around the notion of the Holy Trinity - within the Godhead."
Coorilos said that all life is considered holy and sacred and the characteristics within it are the values of mutuality, interdependence, dignity and justice.
'NO ROOM FOR ANY DISCRIMINATION'
"There is no room for any kind of discrimination, be it on the basis of sex, class, caste, medical status, disability, you name it," he said.
Rev. Rex Reyes Jr, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, said the HIV and AIDS campaign in his country is in unison with the Orthodox position of dignity, humanity and the involvement of young people.
"Given the number of people with HIV in my country we have had to come out with more practical way of dealing the issues, that is, an aggressive education and we have to get the church leaders to walk the talk," he said.
The program encourages church leaders to have HIV testing in order to help encourage young people not to be afraid to get tested.
Reyes himself was photographed being tested and featured on a national billboard poster for which some people criticized him, but he said it increased national awareness on HIV and AIDS.
In the Philippines, churches have found they not only have to work together but also with allied organizations which are not necessarily faith-based organizations. He also said his church's campaign extends to people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Rev. Amin Sandewa of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania belongs to a national network of religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV or AIDS and he has a deeply personal experience of the disease.
"I lost my two daughters and my wife to HIV," said Sandewa explaining that disclosure of the disease is vital in preventing it spreading.
"The challenge is why people are not ready to disclose," he said, affirming the campaign of Reyes.
"In my network we have more than 400 religious leaders who are HIV positive but only 10 have disclosed," he said referring to the stigma that still remains.
He said another challenge is that of sexual morality, agreeing that "this is a health issue more than a moral issue" and that, in seeking to educate people, churches have to reach out to people who may be ignored, such as sex workers.
"In Tanzania there can be clash between the religious approach and medical approach," said Sandewa, espousing more openness in dealing with the disease.
Panelists emphasized that increasing advocacy, accompaniment and service provision is critical in ending HIV. They were clear that this could only be achieved by the significant support and mobilization of the faith community.
Before the meeting the WCC reported that conversations that began at the Fifth International Eastern European and Central Asian AIDS Conference (EECAAC) in Moscow three months ago are continuing today.
'HIV NOT A CURSE'
"HIV is a call, not a curse," Bishop Methodius (Kondratiev) of Alapaevsk and Kamensk from the Russian Orthodox Church, had said, carrying a message about the role of spiritual and moral dimensions of AIDS.
"HIV-infected persons in the Orthodox environment should not be outcasts or feel themselves as lepers surrounded by healthy people. HIV is not a sign of God's rejection," he said.
He is part of a growing circle of Christian, Jewish and Muslim people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia who are sharing their experience responding to HIV to develop more coordinated cooperation among faith-based organizations, even as the number HIV infections increases in the region.
With the motto "Every Life Matters," the forum in Moscow was the largest event on HIV prevention and treatment in the region, attended by 2,500 delegates from 79 countries.
Among the participants were leading scientists, politicians, public figures, and representatives of international and religious organizations and non-government organizations.
"We need to build a bridge between scientific evidence and social transformation," UNAIDS executive director and under-secretary general of the United Nations Michel Sidibé said.
'RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS BUILD BRIDGES'
"You cannot overcome HIV just by scientific evidence; people do not understand it. Only religious organizations can build that bridge and reach people in their social circles.
"Religious organizations can fight stigma and discrimination and stand for social justice. They need to invite people to seek medical treatment, and no one should be left without treatment opportunities."
According to the latest UNAIDS data, 1.5 million people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia are living with HIV.
In 2015 there were an estimated 190,000 new HIV infections in the region, rising by 57 percent between 2010 and 2015.
At the same time, new HIV infections worldwide have fallen by 6 percent since 2010. AIDS-related deaths worldwide have fallen by 45 percent since their peak in 2005. Yet in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the number of AIDS-related deaths has increased by 22 percent between 2010 and 2015.