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East Asia and Pacific religious leaders united to confront HIV and AIDS

© courtesy Hisham Hussein
Religious leaders representing different faiths and countries congregated for the East Asia and Pacific Inter-Faith Consultation on Children and HIV.

BANGKOK, 25 January 2008 - “I would rather have a church filled with sinners than sick people,” relayed Dominica Bessie Abo, quoting a pastor, to delegates from Asian and Pacific churches, temples and mosques who were united in their zeal for a greater faith based contribution to confront HIV and AIDS related issues in their communities.

Speaking to the 80 delegates at the first East Asia and Pacific Inter-Faith Consultation on Children and HIV, Dominica Bessie Abo said it was not tolerance for sinners but concern for the infected that had pushed the Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea to create the Anglicare Stop AIDS, a community based organisation seven years ago.     

The work of Anglicare, added Dominica  Bessie Abo, who is its National Director, is one example of how the church has stepped up to help those hardest hit by the impact of AIDS.

Since 1987 when the first case of HIV was detected in her native PNG, the virus has spread to an estimated 69,000 people. Working in remote areas of the country, Anglicare has tapped the church network to mobilise critical care and support to those infected and affected as well as to raise awareness through activities such as volunteer counselling and testing, peer education and adult literacy courses.

AIDS, a non-denominational disease

AIDS, reminded Dominica Bessie Abo, is a non-denominational disease. According to the latest UNAIDS estimates, 4.9 million people in Asia and Pacific live with HIV, including 440,000 newly infected in the past year. Approximately 300,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2007. Religion has the reach and the responsibility to respond, counselled the Sister.

“Your partnership, as faith-based organisations, is critical,” encouraged UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific Anupama Rao Singh in her welcoming remarks. “Without tapping into the strong roots you have within communities, your large social networks, the respect and trust of your constituents as well as the moral and ethical know-how to work for positive social change, we cannot succeed in this fight.”

© UNICEF EAPRO/2008/Jirathun
Participants from different faiths join hands to define the roles that faith-based organisations can play to respond to HIV.

Organised under UNICEF’s global campaign “Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS”, the three day meeting brought together a diverse group of participants which included an Anglican Bishop from Fiji, a Muslim Imam from a remote ethnic minority community in China, Buddhist monks from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Mongolia, Thailand and Viet Nam, Christian nuns from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Thailand as well as a Hindu religious leader from Malaysia.

Also sitting among them were representatives from regional religious associations and networks, including the Asian Interfaith Network on HIV, the World Council of Churches in the Pacific, the Christian Conference of Asia, the Asian Muslim Action Network and the Sangha Metta, a Buddhist alliance. 

Demonstrating compassion from the frontlines

The meeting revealed a wealth of existing faith-based work already in place to mitigate the harms of HIV and AIDS. Among them were the Buddhist Leadership Initiative, which began in Thailand in 1997 and has since expanded to include monks from Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam.

By using the moral standing and extensive reach of monks in these countries, the Initiative has gone to the frontlines to demonstrate compassion to those infected and affected, providing them care and support and increasing AIDS awareness.

In presenting a secondary school-based program, Venerable Phramaha Bounsy Vongphoumy explained that the curriculum used by him and other monks in Lao PDR had been adapted from Buddhist teachings for HIV prevention awareness. “Specific monks are trained and equipped with the necessary skills to teach different ages,” he said.
 
In Malaysia meanwhile, the Pink Triangle Foundation, a volunteer community-based organisation, has had enormous success in facilitating dialogue with the state’s Islamic Religious Department to provide education, compassion and support to marginalised communities which include commercial sex workers.

Not forgetting prevention

In addition to providing care and support to those living with HIV, many delegates talked about what they saw as room for an even larger role in prevention, particularly in areas such as life skills education and outreach programs for most-at-risk adolescents.

The Sangha Metta, a Thai-based project that has been a large component of the Buddhist Leadership Initiative in Thailand was cited for its innovation in training novice monks as peer educators on HIV as well as narcotic harm reduction under a new program, NAIRN – the Novice AIDS Intervention and Rehabilitation Network.

The objective, explained Laurie Maund, the Project Director, “is to get the young novices to act as spiritual leaders for youth by promoting a safe lifestyle and providing them with emotional support.”  Because most novices are younger than 25, he believes they are in a strong position to talk to other young people about harm reduction and nurture their spiritual development in a way that they will accept.

On the other hand, an Imam from Ningxia Province in China who uses his Friday prayers as well as other congregational gatherings to create awareness on HIV and AIDS made known the challenges he encountered from other Imams in the province who are not convinced they should be involved in HIV education. He believes however that this can change with the Government’s endorsement of the important role religious leaders and faith-based organisations can and need to play in the HIV response.

Defining the way forward

The meeting concluded with a draft statement that seeks to formalise the commitment of religious groups to strengthen their partnership and role in the response to HIV and AIDS on children.  The document outlines commitments in four priority areas:

  1. strengthening the capacity of families,
  2. building a supportive environment,
  3. mobilising and supporting community-based responses, and
  4. ensuring access to essential services.

It also commits them to use more evidence in their approaches, to better include people living with HIV and AIDS, and also to integrate gender and human rights perspectives into their work.

The next step beyond this first consultation is to create more networking opportunities and more systematic ways to exchange information and best practices between organisations and foster closer ties within countries with other partners working to protect children and young people from HIV.

Joining hands across denominations, believe the consultation participants, will work toward building greater tolerance and thus greater defence against the real troubles in our communities.

“Far too many positive people continue to be marginalized,” remarked Fe'iloakitau Kaho Tevi, Executive Secretary of the World Council of Churches in the Pacific.

“We in the churches need to appreciate that human sexuality is a gift from God and should not be judgemental. Blowing out other people’s candles is not going to make yours shine brighter.”

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If you are interested in the Consultation’s presentations, please contact wkulpisitthicharoen@unicef.org

 

 

 

 

East Asia and Pacific Inter-Faith Consultation on Children and HIV

Publication

What Religious Leaders Can Do about HIV/AIDS: Action for Children and Young People, 2004. Read 


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