Ecumenical team calls for "radical rethinking" of the ways churches and faith communities respond to HIV/AIDS
[WCC] Governments need to work in close collaboration with religious communities if they are to carry out effective HIV/AIDS programmes, a World Council of Churches (WCC) team told participants in a meeting at the United Nations (UN).
Churches and other faith-based organizations are central to both care of those already infected by the virus, and efforts to prevent further infection, governmental representatives were told.
The WCC team was in New York for week-long (26 February - 2 March) informal consultations preparing for a special session of the UN General Assembly at UN headquarters 25-27 June.
Christoph Benn, a medical doctor at the German Institute for Medical Mission (DIFAM) and member of the Commission which guides the health related work of the Council, led the team.
Other members were Dorothy Brewster-Lee, coordinator of International Health Ministries for the Presbyterian Church (USA); Marian C. L. Grandia-Feddema, secretary general of the International Christian AIDS Network, and Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest who directs a health programme for the Diocese of Namirembe, Uganda.
A statement they prepared and issued in New York received the endorsement of the World Conference on Religion and Peace and the Protestant evangelical agency, World Vision.
"After 20 years of watching the AIDS pandemic evolve all over the world we need a radical rethinking of the ways we respond," says the statement.
It points out that more than 80 per cent of the world's population is identified with a religious community, and any effective HIV/AIDS programme needs to take advantage of the presence of these communities in all population areas.
"Faith-based organizations have credible leadership, existing structures and effective channels of communication that are present at all levels of society," it said, pointing out that these groups are already providing much of the care for those who have AIDS and others, such as orphans affected by deaths from AIDS.
The team acknowledged that religious communities "too often" maintain an "awkward silence" about the way AIDS is transmitted. But these communities also have a capacity to bring about changes in behaviour because "sexual behaviour is deeply influenced by moral and religious convictions".
Governmental representatives were also reminded that AIDS and its devastating effects on individuals and communities bring "spiritual needs" that faith-based organizations are especially equipped to address.
According to Benn, many people dealing with AIDS view faith-based organizations "more as a problem than as an asset", and this "mainly because of the question of condoms".
Letting discussion of AIDS prevention get reduced to a debate over condoms is not fruitful, and the team's statement was an attempt to move discussion beyond that impasse, he said.
The statement calls for a comprehensive approach to prevention that emphasizes faithfulness of marriage partners to each other and abstinence outside marriage. But it also advocates encouraging use of condoms for those who feel unable or unwilling to follow those guidelines. And it urges voluntary testing and counseling as steps that can lead to more responsible behaviour.
The WCC team cited Uganda as an example of government collaboration with the religious community, using a comprehensive approach, resulting in a dramatic reduction in infection rates.
Byamugisha, whose wife died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991 and who learned he was HIV-positive in a test the following year, presented the WCC team's viewpoint orally to a session of the UN consultations. In Uganda, the "combined prevention approach" has led to "increased abstinence levels, reductions in casual sex and increased condom use," he reported to consultation participants.
The consultations dealt mainly with a report by the UN secretary-general, to be followed by a second week in May to prepare a document for action at the June special session.
In commending the report, the WCC team nevertheless said it gave insufficient attention to faith-based organizations, and tended to lump them together with other non-governmental organizations rather than recognize their distinctive importance. Also, a section on prevention called for increasing the supply of condoms but not for the comprehensive approach that included faithfulness and abstinence.
The WCC team contribution was based on ecumenical efforts since the 1980s to deal with HIV/AIDS. A 1987 educational booklet for health workers was translated into 55 languages and widely distributed. A 1996 statement adopted by the WCC's Central Committee challenged the churches to address the issue forthrightly and take action on it. Other educational efforts have been undertaken, and last July an eight-member WCC team participated in the International AIDS Conference at Durban, South Africa.
A WCC team will take part in the May consultations and attend the General Assembly session in June.