HIV Church Conference Breaks Record in U.K.

The largest church conference on HIV/AIDS in the United Kingdom was held this past weekend, reaffirming the belief that churches worldwide are joining in the battle against the deadliest epidemic in the history of mankind.

More than 300 delegates gathered at Bracknell Family Church in southeast England to not only be informed on the HIV/AIDS issue and what churches worldwide are doing, but also to discover what they can do to help their own home church respond.

The Positive Church Conference, organized by Tearfund, featured Kay Warren, executive director of the HIV initiative at Saddleback Church in southern California, and David Peck, the Archbishop of Canterbury's secretary for international development.

Warren along with her husband Rick Warren – best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life – held the world's first international church conference on HIV/AIDS in 2005 at Saddleback Church.

During Saturday's Positive Church Conference, Warren shared about how she was first introduced to the crisis through a magazine article on AIDS in Africa, and how she had peeked through her hands at the pictures of emaciated bodies and babies ravaged by AIDS.

"Making the monster of what I was seeing as small as I could … how can there be so many children orphaned in one place and I can't name a single one of them," Warren recalled asking herself, according to Tearfund. "What's wrong with me that my faith has not caused me to engage with a problem of this magnitude?"

The Saddleback Church spokeswoman on HIV/AIDS called on churches to help remove the stigma associated with being infected with HIV.

"The truth is it's not a sin to be sick and how someone became infected should not change the way we respond," Warren contended. "We are called to respond to the sick with hope, compassion and healing."

She also urged churches to encourage people to get tested for HIV and to send out volunteers into the community to care for infected people.

Meanwhile, David Peck, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Secretary for International Development, called on the Church to take responsibility for both the right and wrong things it has done in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

"So what we need to focus on is the repentance for what we get wrong and the energizing and focusing in building what we get right," Peck said Saturday.

"You cannot read the Bible and think that 33 million people around the world who are HIV positive and how many tens of millions more are impacted by the weight of that illness and the vulnerability that HIV creates and think it doesn't involve Jesus and it doesn't involve me."

Besides keynote addresses, the conference included seminars focused on how to support vulnerable groups, how to build church leadership to respond to HIV/AIDS, and biblical responses to the pandemic.

Others who spoke at the conference included Patricia Sawo, Tearfund's HIV ambassador, and Simon Benham, senior pastor of Bracknell Family Church.

Benham believes the conference will help launch his congregants into a "whole new phase of involvement."

"People have come from all over the place," Benham said, according to Tearfund. "You know in some sense we can become a flagship in the U.K. for how churches can engage."

"Not in a way that we would boast about," he added, "but just in a way that would equip and enable other churches to be involved because of our involvement."

In the United States, the annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church at Saddleback Church draws from over a thousand to more than two thousand attendees from around the world. The high-profile conference has attracted U.S. senators, presidential candidates, as well as first daughter Jenna Bush to take part and share public policy ideas and raise awareness on HIV/AIDS with church leaders.

According to the latest U.N. report, there are more than three million people worldwide have HIV – the virus which can lead to AIDS. Over two million people have died of AIDS this year alone, including 330,000 children.

Every day, some 1,000 babies are born with HIV – 90 percent of which are babies born in Africa, according to UNAIDS. Half of all new HIV infections in the world occur in children and youth. In total, 2.5 million children under the age of 15 are infected in the world.

In 2003, President Bush created the $15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – the largest-ever international health initiative targeted at one disease – to help prevent and care for millions of people with AIDS in the hardest hit African countries.

The U.S. Congress is currently in the process of renewing PEPFAR, which expires September 2008.

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