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World AIDS Day: Christian leaders urge renewed efforts in fighting global pandemic

[Episcopal News Service] In observance of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, Christian leaders are calling for continued support for the nearly 34 million people living with HIV around the world and encouraging renewed education and advocacy efforts to bring an end to the global pandemic.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson issued a joint letter for World AIDS Day 2011, saying that the two churches have embarked upon a new age of full communion.

"World AIDS Day is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on God's call to lift up the dignity and value of each person," the leaders said.

"We are called to confront this pandemic - whose scale has no precedent in human history - through prayer, by speaking out to eliminate stigma and discrimination against those living with HIV and AIDS, by caring for those afflicted by the virus in our own communities, by advocating for strong government support of life-saving programs, and by supporting the global effort to alleviate the global systems of poverty within which HIV and AIDS is so endemic."

Presiding bishops of the Episcopal Church have issued regular World AIDS Day statements since the annual commemoration began in 1988. This is the first year the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop has issued a World AIDS Day statement jointly with the leader of another Christian mainline denomination.

"We are part of a global family of 150 million Anglicans and Lutherans, most living in developing countries, for whom the virus is an ever-present daily reality," they said, adding that World AIDS Day is "an opportunity for us to remember the 30 million lives that have been lost to the deadly pandemic over the past three decades, to rededicate our energies in support of those 34 million living with HIV and AIDS today and to work toward building a future without AIDS."

Sarah Dreier, legislative representative for international policy issues for the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told Episcopal News Service on Nov. 30 that the statement "highlights not only our two churches' joint advocacy work toward an end of AIDS, but also the moment of real possibility at which the world stands in the fight against this deadly pandemic."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) "both recently identified the hope that a world without AIDS is within our reach in the immediate future," Dreier told ENS. "After three long decades, the technology and strategies we need to turn the corner on AIDS are finally in the world's hands. The critical question will be whether world leaders can summon the political support and financial resources necessary to create an AIDS-free generation."

The U.S. Congress is currently debating federal appropriations for poverty-focused foreign assistance for 2012 and beyond. Dreier said that because of the Budget Act that Congress passed and which President Barack Obama signed into law this summer, those funding decisions for 2012 will set the course - including for U.S. spending in the fight against HIV and AIDS - for the next decade.

“It will likely be a watershed month - for better or for worse - in the world's fight against AIDS,” Dreier said. “All Episcopalians and Lutherans in the United States must let their elected leaders know now just how important these funding decisions will be to the question of whether the world summons the will to end AIDS in our lifetime."

Of the 34 million people infected with HIV around the world, 22 million live in sub-Saharan Africa, where an entire generation of children "has been orphaned because of the virus; many of these children have themselves been infected by mother-to-child transmission, a transmission which is preventable with basic medical attention" through the use of anti-retroviral drugs, the presiding bishops noted.

"In an unjust world with more wealth than ever before, global poverty has contributed to more people dying each day because they are too poor to survive and receive basic assistance from the symptoms of global poverty -- gender-based violence, discrimination, hunger and lack of access to medical treatment," the presiding bishops' letter said.

Although there is no cure for HIV, antiretroviral drugs can delay the development of AIDS and improve the quality and longevity of life.

HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system and inhibits the human body from fighting off infections and diseases. The virus is found in many bodily fluids and can be transmitted through unprotected sex with an infected person; blood transfusion with contaminated blood; by using contaminated syringes, needles or other sharp instruments; or from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.

AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) refers to the advanced stages of HIV when symptoms, infections and cancers start to appear in an infected person.

Episcopal Relief & Development runs comprehensive international HIV/AIDS care programs that "focus on educating young people and other vulnerable groups about disease prevention, supporting orphans and vulnerable children with basic needs, helping individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS rebuild their lives with opportunities such as micro-loans, and addressing HIV as a cross-cutting issue that affects all areas of our work," according to information provided to ENS by the agency.

The programs are run in collaboration with church and ecumenical partners in Africa and parts of Latin America to assist countries most devastated by the disease, including Honduras, Congo, Burundi, Namibia, Belize, Kenya, Peru, Tanzania, South Africa, the Dominican Republic, Swaziland, Botswana, El Salvador, Zambia, and many others.

"Through education and income generation programs for vulnerable women, health services to prevent mother-to-child transmission, and other programs across sectors, we are integrating HIV/AIDS into many of our programs to help strengthen the fabric of the communities in which we and our partners work," Episcopal Relief & Development said.

According to its World AIDS Day 2011 report, UNAIDS says that annual new HIV infections fell 21 percent between 1997 and 2010.

"As medication becomes more readily available, people who get treatment earlier are less likely to infect others just as people who become aware of their status earlier are less likely to infect others," said Matthew Ellis, executive director of the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition, which was formed in 1988 in response to those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

For many people in the U.S. and other Western countries the pandemic is often seen as a global - or more specifically an African - issue, an "unfortunate byproduct of domestic media coverage," Ellis told ENS in a Nov. 30 telephone interview from his Indianapolis office. "At one time it wasn't seen as a purely African disease, but unfortunately it has fallen off the radar in many circles."

Ellis said that some areas in the U.S., such as Washington D.C., are showing an increase in HIV/AIDS infections, so complacency in the domestic context "can become a problem."

He said that NEAC has been more proactive this year in using technology and social media to distribute a wealth of online educational about the disease. NEAC also partners with National Episcopal Health Ministries, which Ellis heads, to assist parish nurses and other health professionals to include HIV/AIDS ministries in national programs.

"We try to achieve a strong diocesan presence and work with other national organizations … so that we're not working in isolation," Ellis said. "Many of our Episcopal churches are small and in rural areas. It makes no sense for them to become isolated within their own community …  It's so much more effective for them to partner with another faith community."

NEAC aims to encourage people "to learn about the face of AIDS in your own community" and how to provide "a sense of healing and community" to those infected with or affected by the disease, Ellis said. "We encourage people to think about how they can make their parishes a welcoming place for all people, especially those living with HIV/AIDS."

Ellis, who serves on the National Council of Churches health task force, said that such collaboration also makes sense nationally.

The Episcopal Church has advocated for people living with HIV/AIDS and for their caregivers since its General Convention in 1985, when it was a leader among the mainline churches in addressing the pandemic.

More recently, General Convention 2009 passed six resolutions that specifically addressed HIV/AIDS-related concerns. The legislation called on Episcopalians to advocate against rising infection rates; expressed grief for discrepancies in care and treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS and called for provisions in health-care reform to cover people with pre-existing conditions; urged accurate and comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention in youth-education programs; and encouraged diocesan staff and leaders and all active clergy to take a web-based, self-directed tutorial on HIV/AIDS available at www.neac.org.

Ellis said that although a strategy meeting - called for in General Convention Resolution A162 - has not taken place, NEAC is in the final stages of completing a comprehensive strategic plan for HIV/AIDS for the Episcopal Church. The plan is expected to be available in early 2012.

Meanwhile, Ellis underscored the importance of basic education about the disease and referred to the facts quiz available on the NEAC website. He also highlighted the work of the Episcopal Public Policy Network, which continues to galvanize Episcopalians in writing to their policymakers and advocating on the issue.

EPPN issued a policy alert on Nov. 30 calling on its supporters to "help make this World AIDS Day the beginning of the end of AIDS" by telling Congress "that the United States must support Secretary Clinton's vision for an AIDS-free generation."

The presiding bishops, in their letter, also emphasized the importance of advocacy through their denominations' networks. "The voice of every Episcopalian and every ELCA member is vital to this work, so we urge you to join our churches' advocacy efforts by becoming members of the Episcopal Public Policy Network or the ELCA e-Advocacy Network," they said.

Lutheran churches also are working globally in the fight against the AIDS pandemic. The presiding bishops' letter highlighted the comprehensive ELCA Strategy on HIV and AIDS - "a commitment to prevention, treatment, alleviating stigma, and providing care and support for all [which] guides and supports congregational responses to our domestic communities and our global companions in need."

In Indonesia, the Lutheran World Federation organized two early November conferences on HIV/AIDS with 60 youth delegates and church leaders attending.

The participants committed to setting up HIV/AIDS desks in each of Indonesia's 12 Lutheran churches; including HIV/AIDS in the curriculum of theological colleges, confirmation classes and Sunday schools; and raising funds in congregations to support HIV campaigns and those infected with the virus, according to an Ecumenical News International article.

Lutheran Bishop Langsung Maruli Sitorus urged youth at the conference "to break the roof of prejudice and stigma in the church to bring solace to the HIV-infected."

Youth delegates also suggested launching a youth communication network, holding youth forums to spread awareness on HIV/AIDS, collecting funds and even taking up preventive treatment and care for stigmatized HIV-infected people.

In Kenya, Christian and Muslim leaders attending a Nov. 23-25 conference discussed how to improve their strategies in HIV/AIDS-related ministries, saying that comprehensive, integrated and stigma-free approaches should combine moral and public health issues, ENI reported.

In Uganda, the Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha, the first religious leader on the continent to declare publicly his HIV-positive status, said that African churches need to urge governments to do more to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"The church is doing something, but if it were enough the pandemic would have gone away. The church has not challenged the governments to put money where the problem is," Byamugisha told ENInews in Nairobi.

Byamugisha said governments should allocate resources to end stigma, preventable AIDS deaths and related illnesses. "We [churches] have not asked those campaigning for the presidency to show their manifestos on how they propose to engage the disease," said Byamugisha, who co-founded the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS (ANERELA+) in 2002.

In Canada, 15 Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim leaders from around the world, some living with HIV, are meeting in Toronto Nov. 29-30 to assess the progress in combating the pandemic. The meeting is organized by the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and a statement on their assessment and goals for future action will be released on World AIDS Day.

A recent article from the U.K.-based Anglican mission agency USPG highlighted some of the challenges in supporting health workers and patients in poor communities where HIV is a major concern but where talking about it is difficult due to the stigma associated with the disease.

In Myanmar, where official statistics are difficult to obtain, the exact extent of HIV is unknown, the release said. "Also, because the subject is taboo it can be difficult for the health workers to talk about openly. Indeed, providing education to challenge the stigma surrounding HIV is one of the goals of the health workers."

According to the USPG release, the church in Myanmar is the only organization providing healthcare - including home visits, antiretroviral treatment and palliative care - in many parts of the country.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams released a video message for World AIDS Day in which he talks about the part sexual violence plays in the spread of HIV, calling it "one of the most shameful facts of our day."

Williams recorded the video message during a recent visit to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been at "the epicenter of a great deal of appalling violence in recent years," he says in the video.

He talks specifically about the use of sexual violence as a tool of war and something that is used to "humiliate and subdue others," he says.

Williams highlights the crucial role that the church has played in supporting survivors of such abuse, and in combating the stigma they often face in their own communities as a result of this violence.

"Trauma is something which cannot be overcome overnight but when people feel they've been abandoned by families, by communities, because of the shame and stigma of HIV/AIDS, the church in this part of Congo has been there for them," Williams said. "For these people, who have been abused systematically, been raped, violated, abducted often at the youngest of ages - for these people, the church has been the family that mattered."

Williams' video message is available here.

Jefferts Schori visited the Congo in July and witnessed how the Anglican Church there is helping to support women who have been infected with HIV as a result of sexual violation, as well as orphaned children, many of whom have lost their parents as a result of the virus.

"Our global community has made significant advancements in tackling this pandemic," the presiding bishops said in their letter. "Today, we must increase these efforts. We stand at the threshold of reaching the goal of achieving an 'AIDS-free generation' recently set by Secretary of State Clinton. But whether we are able to reach this milestone will depend on nothing less, and nothing more, than whether our nations and communities are willing to commit the resources and energies to make the next 30 years different from the past 30."

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