The Russian Orthodox Church announced on Tuesday the launch of a new program to tackle the fast-growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Russia, according to reports published this week.
The announcement, which the Associated Press reported about on Sept. 6, coincided with an international conference organized by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in London on Sept. 5-6. The conference, chaired by UN Secretary Kofi Annan, witnessed 29 donor nations pledge a total of US $3.7 billion to the fund, which will be used to tackle epidemics of the illnesses in the poor world.
According to AP, the Russian Orthodox Churchs HIV/AIDS program aims to provide both physical and spiritual healing for HIV/AIDS patients and their families. It is not limited to Orthodox Christians, but reaches out to all people regardless of their background or religion, the news report stated.
As part of the program, the Church is going to set up hotlines for HIV/AIDS victims and to send out nuns and other church servants to take care of ill patients at hospitals.
In addition to physical treatment, spiritual guidance is also highly emphasized in the program.
"The disease and sin are very closely connected," said Father Vsevolod Chaplin,the top spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church, to the Associated Press.
The Church-based HIV/AIDS program addresses the importance of religious education as a strategy of prevention. According to UNAIDS, the rate at which the epidemic which mainly affects young people is transmitted is increasing more through sexual contact than injecting drug use.
The program therefore calls for preventing the epidemic's spread by teaching religious morals and discouraging sex with multiple partners and homosexuality, which the church views as sinful.
The Russian Orthodox Church also began to realize a few months ago the pressing need to support HIV/AIDS patients who are often being abandoned by the society.
A statement released on the Russian Orthodox Church's official website in late June stated, "Diseases and the suffering related to them, including the feelings of alienation and rejection an HIV/AIDS patient experiences from others, are the consequences of sin and disdain for God-given moral values."
The Church called on the believers to "to hate and resist the sin, rather than transfer hatred and rejection onto the sinner."
It encouraged the priests and parishioners to offer moral and material support as well as prayer to HIV/AIDS patients, as a model to promote tolerance for such patients among their congregations.
Although critics say the Church has been too slow to respond to the society, the involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church in combating HIV/AIDS was greatly praised by UN experts as an important contribution.
Alexander Goliusov, an AIDS expert with the Federal Consumer Rights and Public Well-Being watchdog was quoted by AP as saying, "Federal authorities those that deal with this problem view the Orthodox Church as an extremely valuable and necessary partner in combating the epidemic."
Bertil Lindblad, UNAIDS representative in Russia, said the program illustrated the importance of public and religious organizations' involvement in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Currently, the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Russia has reached an alarming pace. The United Nations commented the growth of the deadly epidemic in Russia is one of the highest in the world.
According to the UN 2004 Report on the global AIDS epidemic, 860,000 people in Russia are living with HIV by the end of 2003.