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HEALTH-ASIA: Where Are the Religious Leaders?

BALI, Aug 13 2009 (IPS) - “Thank God for condoms!” Donald Messer of the U.S.-based Centre of Church and Global AIDS declared during one of the many sessions at an AIDS conference for the Asia-Pacific, which ended here Thursday.

Condoms on banners at ICAAP. Credit: Johanna Son/IPS

Condoms on banners at ICAAP. Credit: Johanna Son/IPS

Conservative religious leaders would frown at Messer’s remarks, but many activists and health advocates here say there are far too few religious leaders getting involved in fighting HIV and AIDS – despite the heavy toll these have taken on people’s lives and well-being.

Messer says, some faith-based leaders and their communities stigmatise men who have sex with men (MSM) and injecting drug users – among whom HIV infection rates have been rising – and thus contribute to the obstacles that make it harder for them to get information, and access to treatment they need.

“Many religious groups and leaders are unwilling to address HIV/AIDS and make it a priority,” explained Messer, who is executive director of the Colorado-based centre. “Their commitment level is quite low particularly when compared to the size of their budget and the amount of work they do.”

Thirty-three million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS and more than 15 million children have been orphaned due to the disease, he adds, criticising what he called the apathy of many Christian groups.

“We’ve been talking about HIV/AIDS and the religious groups’ response for three decades now. We’re still talking too much even now,” noted Dominica Abo of Fiji.

Abo believes that the “most powerful contribution” church leaders can make in efforts to curb HIV and AIDS is to use their clout in societies the world over to eradicate stigma and discrimination and address biases that put groups like women at risk.

More than 50 million women in the Asia-Pacific are put at risk by male partners who have unprotected sex with commercial sex workers, share needles, or have sex with other men, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

“At the end of the day, in all cultures, it is the women that are blamed for the spread of HIV/AIDS,” Abo added.

Everyone should look at women and children from a faith-based perspective, points out Reverend Youngsook Charlene Kang of the United Methodist Church in the U.S.

“Women account for nearly half of HIV/AIDS infections worldwide and almost two-thirds of those among young people. Twenty-five years into the global epidemic, there is still no widely available technology that women can both initiate and control to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS,” she argued.

What the world needs, she adds, is more female control in HIV/AIDS prevention through new strategies and developments in technology. These can include the use of microbicides, which are expected to block 40 to 60 percent of the HIV virus from the moment it enters the body, and improved female condoms.

“The best control at the moment is the female condom,” Youngsook said.

Messner says it does not help that more often than not, violence against women is “tolerated by the religious community” because of the status quo and the avoidance of taboo topics. “Some religious leaders are more eager to preserve the purity or correctness of theological perspectives than their task to save human lives,” he remarked.

While women should be able to be more assertive in their relationships with their partners and husbands, Youngsouk adds that the sensitisation of men to reproductive health and rights issues is equally important.

Many conservative Muslim and Christian groups, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, continue to preach against the use of ‘artificial’ reproductive health methods – including condom use – which they believe promote promiscuity.

“[Yet] when used directly and consistently, condoms are humanity’s best protection and weapon against HIV/AIDS,” Messner said.

In the end, he argues, the failure to use protection methods violates a fundamental premise on which all religions are based – the basic protection of life.

“Silence kills, but it can also be broken. Blind idealism is dangerous but it can also inspire as it attracts people to higher ideals,” said Messer.

Added Youngsouk: “We need to call on religious leaders to educate and create new pathways within our churches for parishioners to learn the role that faith communities can play.”

*TerraViva at ICAAP 09 (

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