Leaders from various faith groups around the world on Tuesday pledged to prioritize and strengthen their response to HIV and to end the stigma associated with the pandemic.
"As religious leaders we have to be just and honest and address the fact that a vast majority of those among us affected by HIV and AIDS belong to a faith community," said the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches. "We have to provide leadership to uphold the inherent human dignity of all."
Tveit and representatives of some 40 religions just came out of the first-ever religious summit of high level leaders on the HIV response. The March 22-23 event took place in the Netherlands where participants – including Baha'í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders – signed a personal commitment to action, vowing to "be clear in my words and actions that stigma and discrimination towards people living with or affected by HIV is unacceptable," according to The Associated Press.
The participating leaders acknowledged during the summit that stigma and discrimination are perpetuated in both religious communities and society at large.
"Our focus was ending stigma and discrimination for those who are HIV positive and who have AIDS," the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told the ELCA News Service. "We recognized that religious communities have been part of that."
Religious leadership needs to be held accountable, Hanson noted, in order to be able to hold the governments accountable.
Summit participants wrote in a statement, "With remorse we regret that those living with HIV have at times been at the receiving end of judgment, rejection ... We need to make greater efforts to ensure that all people living with HIV find a welcome within faith communities."
AIDS, they stressed, is not a sin but an illness.
In addition to discussing stigma, the diverse group of religious leaders also explored opportunities to promote universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support in their communities.
"As I travel the world, I see increasing evidence of social injustice. Social injustice only serves to increase the vulnerability of the vulnerable and push them farther out of reach of HIV services," said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe.
"Nothing," he said, "would be more noble than a world with no more babies born with HIV."
The group called for "a massive social mobilization" to support services for women to eliminate the transmission of HIV from mother to child.
Sidibe is convinced that religious leaders can play a vital role in the AIDS response.
"By promoting community solidarity they can prevent new HIV infections and ensure that people living with HIV are treated with dignity and respect," he stated.
The Summit was organized by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and Cordaid, with support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UNAIDS, International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS, the World AIDS Campaign and the European Council of Religious Leaders.
According to UNAIDS, 33.4 million people were living with HIV in 2008, more than 20 percent higher than the number in 2000. That year, 2.7 million were newly infected and 2 million died of it.