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Encouraged and booed
Faith groups struggle to find place on global stage in combating AIDS


Melissa Engle/RNS/Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance
Participants at the AIDS treatment march in Toronto, part of the International AIDS Conference in August, demand treatment drugs for poor countries. Religious groups were both criticized and praised for their work in fighting AIDS.   (Melissa Engle/RNS/Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance)
In the long-running tragedy known as the global AIDS pandemic, religion has played various roles.

Two decades ago, while doctors and researchers worked to find a cure for the newly recognized disease, religious voices, especially in the developing world, were silent or heard as oracles of doom and condemnation.

At the International AIDS Conference in Toronto Aug. 14-18, faith groups were more visible, but some other participants criticized them primarily at the continuing debate over abstinence as a tool for effective prevention.

In an opening session, philanthropist and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was warmly received by the thousands of delegates from around the world -- until he mentioned the "ABC approach," which prompted loud boos. [ABC = Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms.]

The approach embraced by the Bush administration and tied to a percentage of AIDS funding went primarily to faith-based groups who agreed to use the funds for abstinence education. This approach is viewed by some as unrealistic and condemned as far worse by others. Stephen Lewis, who has spent the past five years as the United Nations' special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told participants that the pursuit of an abstinence-until-marriage policy, at the expense of condoms, is "not intelligent."

Faith groups see progress

While the public debate over abstinence continues, it obscures the fact that faith-based organizations have made much progress, not only in philosophy, but also in practice. Some of that progress was evident at an interfaith meeting convened before the main conference and attended by hundreds of people from various faiths.

Faith-based organizations now are widely recognized for delivering the majority of services to local communities, said Gunnar Stalsett, former Lutheran bishop of Oslo, Norway, and co-chair of the interfaith conference.

Today, few religious leaders openly condemn those infected with HIV, but many still find open discussions about behavior awkward. "We need to say it is about sexuality, it is about drugs,” Stalsett said. “People representing faith organizations need to use these words in order to be heard and be connected to the real issue."

Speakers urged participants of various faiths to work together. "HIV and AIDS is an issue where we find our unity within our diversity," Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and president of the Lutheran World Federation, told a group of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Bahais and Hindus.

"We come as people of faith whose identity has been shaped by deeply held convictions and practices,” he said. “That makes collaboration very difficult because we tend to distrust the faith and religious practices of the other.”

If the preconference meeting was encouraging to religious leaders, the main conference stood in stark contrast. It offered dozens of workshops on various aspects of HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment, but some faith groups complained that subjects relating to faith were barely represented.

Exhibits in "The Global Village" section of the conference include graphic demonstrations by sex workers and vocal rallies by various advocacy groups. Except for World Vision, acknowledged as one of the most active groups in working with those affected by HIV, no faith-based group was represented.

"It can be discouraging,” said Ken Casey, who heads World Vision’s international effort. “There is so much work to do and spending time debating the approach can be draining." Ironically, the recent report by the United National program on HIV/AIDS praised the participation of faith groups and identified congregations as having untapped potential for responding to the pandemic.

But faith-based groups, who often received a hostile response from others in the international meeting, continue to struggle to find their place on the global stage. Some, finally, are acknowledging that their efforts are making a difference.