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Religious leaders from East Asia and Pacific meet to seek greater compassion in response to HIV and AIDS

Participants from different faiths

By Shantha Bloemen

Regional Inter-Faith Consultation on Children and HIV in Bangkok, Thailand - 15-17 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 in confronting AIDS 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 had pushed the Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea to create the Anglicare Stop AIDS, a community based organization 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 mobilize 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, reminded Dominica Bessie Abo, is a nondenominational plague. 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, she counselled.

UNICEF organized the Inter-Faith Consultation (in January in Bangkok) as part of its ongoing Children and AIDS campaign and as a forum for sharing experiences and strengthening religion’s role in combating the impact of HIV and AIDS on children by building on what is already being done and nurturing greater involvement.

Muslim lady and Bhuddhist monks listening to a presentation in the Inter-Faith Consultation

Participants 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 and Christian nuns from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Thailand. 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. 

“Your partnership, as faith-based organizations, is critical,” encouraged Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific Office, 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 can not succeed in this fight.”

The three-day discussions revealed a large body of faith-based work in place. Among them is the Buddhist Leadership Initiative, which began in Thailand in 1997 and has 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.

The monks’ role is having a positive impact, noted Yoshimi Nishino, UNICEF’s EAPRO HIV Specialist, referring to findings from a recent assessment. By using the scripture and Buddhist teachings as the basis of their work and by proving correct information of HIV transmission, the monks have steadily helped reduce stigma and discrimination in many communities in the Mekong region, Nishino said.

In presenting a secondary school-based programme, 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.

Bhuddist monks having discussion on their roles

The Sangha Metta, a Thai-based project that has been a large component of the Buddhist Leadership Initiative in Thailand, is expanding its reach to work with novices. NAIRN – the Novice Aids Intervention & Rehabilitation Network – is seeking to train novice monks as peer educators on HIV as well as narcotic harm reduction. 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.

The Pink Triangle Foundation, a volunteer community-based organization in Malaysia, has had enormous success in working with transgender, commercial sex workers and other high-risk groups reported its director. “We have sought to create a space for young marginalized groups, especially men, to discuss their sexuality in a non-judgemental setting,” said Hisham Hussein.  Working in collaboration with the Government and other Islamic groups, the foundation has been running outreach services, a drop-in centre and providing referrals that have started to make an impact in reducing the risk of HIV transmission.

In addition to providing care and support to those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS, many delegates talked about what they saw as room for an even larger role in prevention. They saw scope for expanding activities in such areas as life skills education and outreach programmes targeting most-at-risk adolescents, especially with many of them already working with children’s classes and youth groups. 

In much of the discussions, there was an agreement that many children are not getting the support they need in their families with parents stretched by growing economic and social pressures. This was of particular concern to delegates from the Pacific who thought that traditional family values were being eroded. They agreed that faith-based organizations could play a greater role in providing counselling and moral strength and guidance to those infected with HIV and AIDS as well as seek to use their influence to foster more care and compassion within families and the community at large.

Participants joining an activity in the Consultation

There is also, in some cases, a lack of support from within religious communities. An Imam from Ningxia Province in China said he uses his Friday prayers as well as other congregational gatherings to create awareness on HIV and AIDS. He works in partnership with officers from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, who give technical lectures and presentations while he provides the moral and spiritual leadership by reading from the Koran and quoting other religious texts to reinforce a message of compassion and link it to the local context. However, he has encountered challenges from other Imams in the province who are not convinced they should be involved in HIV education. He believes that if the Government endorses the important role religious leaders and faith-based organizations need to play, it would help further existing activities and motivate others to get involved.

The consultation concluded with a draft statement that seeks to formalize 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) mobilizing 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 organizations and foster closer ties within countries with other partners working in the UNICEF Children and AIDS campaign.

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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