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Combating HIV/AIDS demands creative partnerships, religious leaders say

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the recognition of HIV/AIDS as a new disease. In early June the United Nations held a "High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS" to review world progress toward lessening the impact of this pandemic. On the eve of the meeting, dozens of groups representing every world religion gathered for a prayer service and a press conference addressing the need for urgent action beyond mere words and declarations.

By Matthew Davies

[Episcopal News Service] Renewing commitment toward overcoming the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, people of faith joined in prayer at New York's St. Bartholomew's Church May 30 — the eve of the United Nations High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS, during which all UN member states will review progress of the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS.

Supported by more than 70 organizations, the interfaith prayer service, "Standing Together: Love Keeps the Promise," brought together more than 200 people from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and other faith traditions, all uniting in a common mission — creating an AIDS-free world.

An earlier press conference featured key faith leaders active in the UN review, including Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town, and the Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, a Ugandan Anglican priest and founder of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV/AIDS.

Byamugisha, who will address the UN General Assembly June 2, was the first practicing priest in Africa to declare his HIV status. He has since dedicated his life to eradicating stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and mobilizing people at all levels to take action against the pandemic. "World leaders now have an opportunity to vindicate the harsh pain of history," he said, speaking of the UN review. "We have an opportunity to take what we have done right and do it better, and acknowledge what we have done wrong and correct it."

Ndungane described the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a "global emergency" that requires urgent action but insisted that there is "no time for wrangling over the wording of a political declaration when every minute of every day a child dies of AIDS and a child becomes infected with AIDS." "Words, words, words won't help us in our fight against the pandemic," he added. "Now is the time for action."

Ndungane outlined three priorities toward achieving a world free from AIDS:

  1. a comprehensive, holistic and integrated approach by all stakeholders in dealing with the pandemic;
  2. constructive and creative partnerships between governments, the private sector and the broad church of civil society organizations including faith communities; and
  3. a huge resource mobilization in order to curtail the spread of the pandemic.

The UN meeting will involve all sectors of the international community, governments, civil society and the private sector. The opportunities provided for civil society organizations to take part in the meeting is unprecedented.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in a message delivered at the interfaith service by deputy executive director of UNAIDS Deborah Landey, said that in the past 25 years AIDS has killed more than 25 million people, orphaned millions of children and deepened poverty and hunger.

"After a tragically late and slow start, the world's response has gathered strength — in leadership, in resources, in bringing lifesaving treatment to people the world over," Annan said. "Now, we need to move the response to AIDS to yet another level."

Annan explained that that is why the UN review is so important and why the service at St. Bartholomew's is so encouraging.

"After 25 long and hard years, we have learned that we can win against AIDS only if we forge a truly collective front," he said. "We need the engagement of civil society, of faith-based groups, of the entire global community. You provide strength and support for our struggle. You reinforce our sense of common purpose."

In a printed welcome message, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold applauded the "tireless efforts to end HIV/AIDS worldwide," but recognized the "alarming rates of infection of a disease that knows no boundaries and does not discriminate."

Griswold recalled visiting a Ugandan bishop who had 60 orphans in his home. "These children were among the millions of faces of a pandemic that is destroying a generation, destabilizing nations, and exacerbating the grave crisis of global poverty," he said. "We as a community of believers are called by God to stand with our brothers and sisters who suffer from HIV/AIDS and, strengthened by one another, must continue to work for the end of this scourge."

Recalling a visit to Kenya in early May, H.E. Jan Eliasson, president of the UN General Assembly, said that while in the Kibera slum he asked the community to name their top priority for action. "From all corners the response came: HIV and AIDS," he said.

"Over the next three days, the General Assembly has an opportunity to show the world that it has heard the resounding call for action on HIV and AIDS, and that it will act on it," he added. "And act we must."

Eliasson announced that 25 years into the pandemic, the rate of new infections is such that around 500 people — half of them younger than 24 — will be newly infected before the service concludes. "That statistic reminds us that the international response to AIDS has been woefully slow."

There are enormous grounds for hope and some progress is being made, he insisted, "but the challenge now is to ensure that this progress is a springboard, not a plateau. The United Nations and its Member States need to hear their citizens telling them that more must be done."

The UN review will feature a series of panel and roundtable discussions and a high-level meeting will take place on June 2, which will culminate in the adoption of a political declaration aimed at reaffirming and expressing recommitment to the full implementation of the Declaration in the coming years.

"Our ultimate objective is a generation without AIDS," Ndungane said. "We believe that this is a real achievable possibility. We can do this through developing appropriate programs that target young people, women and children and help create sustainable livelihoods among communities, especially the poor."

– Matthew Davies is international correspondent for Episcopal News Service.

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