August 21, 2009
Though they exert great influence in the communities in which they serve, religious leaders are not doing enough to fight HIV/AIDS, said experts at the recent ninth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, held in Bali, Indonesia.
"Many religious groups and leaders are unwilling to address HIV/AIDS and make it a priority. Their commitment level is quite low, particularly when compared to the size of their budget and the amount of work they do," said Donald Messer of the US-based Center of Church and Global AIDS.
"We've been talking about HIV/AIDS and the religious groups' response for three decades now. We're still talking too much even now," said Fiji's Dominica Abo. The "most powerful contribution" religious leaders can make is addressing stigma, discrimination, and biases that put groups like women at high risk for the disease.
The epidemic's impact on women and children needs to be addressed from a faith-based perspective, said the Rev. Youngsook Charlene Kang of the United Methodist Church in the United States, noting that women account for nearly half of all infections worldwide. "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."
Messer noted that many conservative Muslim and Christian groups continue to preach against contraceptives, including condoms, believing they promote promiscuity. "[Yet] when used directly and consistently, condoms are humanity's best protection and weapon against HIV/AIDS," he said. "Some religious leaders are more eager to preserve the purity or correctness of theological perspectives than their task to save human lives."