An interfaith coalition of leaders gathered together with United Nations officials in the Netherlands today to kick off a two-day summit to address the stigma and discrimination facing people living with HIV.
Billed as the first meeting of its kind, the March 22-23 summit in Den Dolder, Netherlands will be attended by leaders from the Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities and will seek to maximize the growing leadership potential of religious leaders from all faiths in the response to HIV and AIDS.
"Religious leaders have a particular responsibility to continue to address in strong, public and unconditional terms that stigma and discrimination towards people living with and affected by HIV is unacceptable," the summit's organizers stated. "Stigma and discrimination will be the lens through which the religious leaders participating in the Summit will focus on key elements of the response."
"The hope is that the visibility of strong religious leadership in the response to HIV will not only galvanize the global response at a critical moment in this pandemic, but create greater awareness and more accurate information and perceptions by and about faith communities and religious leaders in relation to HIV and AIDS," they add
Summit delegate the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), noted that, "As religious leaders we have to be just and honest and address the fact that a vast majority of those among us affected by HIV and AIDS belong to a faith community. We have to provide leadership to uphold the inherent human dignity of all."
"This meeting should bring us one step further in our ability as peoples of faith to address how we relate to one another as men and women in a just and compassionate way," he added.
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.
Regarding the stigma faced by many HIV positive victims, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called it the "single most important barrier to public action" and "a main reason why too many people are afraid to see a doctor to determine whether they have the disease, or to seek treatment if so."
"[Stigma] helps make AIDS the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions," Ban says. "Stigma is a chief reason why the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world."
Organizers of the summit say that the global response to AIDS stands at a "critical crossroads" as while treatment expansions have brought small victories in the fight against the disease, possibilities of reaching the UN's Millennium Development goals of halting the spread of HIV by 2015 and providing accessible treatment to all victims remains daunting.
"The world needs inspiring and empowering leadership – at all levels – to transform the current response to HIV," the group says, "giving momentum to new, effective approaches to treatment, prevention and care. Leaders are needed who model a strong, proactive, collaborative and compassionate response."
Sponsors for the summit include Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) and Catholic Dutch development organization Cordaid, with support from the 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).