Faith Leaders Make 'Stronger, More Visible' Commitment to Fighting AIDS

World Council of Churches president Abune Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, signs the "personal commitment to action" issued at the Summit of High Level Religious Leaders on HIV. (Photo: Leo Huizinga/Cordaid)

Some 40 high-level religious leaders from various faiths have committed to exercising "stronger, more visible and practical leadership" in fighting the spread of AIDS and the stigma and discrimination associated with those carrying the disease.

"I am convinced that my faith must be more visible and active to halt the spread of HIV and reverse this pandemic", reads a "personal commitment to action" signed by the leaders of Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh traditions at the close of a March 22-23 summit in Den Dolder, Netherlands.

Organized by Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) and Catholic Dutch development organization Cordaid, the event sought to harness the growing leadership potential of religious leaders from all faiths in the response to HIV and AIDS.

"We have recognized, with a renewed sense of urgency, the scale and continued growth of the HIV pandemic globally," a closing statement drafted by the group read, adding that the virus continues to spread "exponentially" nearly 30 years after its first detection.

Recent reports from the UN estimate that over 33 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS, with nearly 25 million having died from the disease since 1981. Africa alone houses nearly 70 percent of the infected population and has over 14 million AIDS orphans.

While access to treatment has expanded, statistics have shown that for every two people put on treatment, another five are newly infected.

According to the summit group, the "stigma" associated with the disease is one of the large reasons for its continued spread.

"The stigma associated with HIV and AIDS has been like that of no other disease", said Abune Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, speaking at the summit.

"Stigma and discrimination help make AIDS a silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it," he added.

Paulos also noted that religious leaders "have a lot of assignments left undone" in speaking about HIV publically, and have actually contributed to the effects of the stigma because "they themselves are not willing to talk about the HIV-related stigma and discrimination."

"We need to revisit the traditions of our respective religious institutions and engage ourselves more than ever in this regard," he said.

The group's statement noted: "With remorse we regret that those living with HIV have at times been at the receiving end of judgment, rejection ...we need to make greater efforts to ensure that all people living with HIV find a welcome within faith communities."

Along with addressing the stigma, the group also brainstormed over ways to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, and treatment, care and support for the disease.

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, who participated in the summit alongside the religious
Leaders, noted: "As I travel the world, I see increasing evidence of social injustice. Social injustice only serves to increase the vulnerability of the vulnerable and push them farther out of reach of HIV services."

Joining Sidibe and the faith leaders at the summit were officials from the U.N.'s Population Fund (UNFPA), AIDS ambassadors of the Netherlands and Sweden, and representatives of networks of people living with HIV and of organizations active in the response to the disease.

Supporting sponsors included Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNAIDS, the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS (INERELA ), the World AIDS Campaign and the European Council of Religious Leaders (Religions for Peace).

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