The world conference on AIDS in Toronto will begin on Sunday, bringing together over 20,000 community leaders, researchers and advocates. Religious groups are expected to play a more active role in the battle with this scourge.
Several Christian churches are already working hard around the world especially in sub-Saharan Africa which is still the most badly affected region. It has been estimated that nearly 9 out of 10 children diagnosed with HIV/AIDS live there which includes 8 out of every 10 AIDS orphans.
A new report, "Faith Untapped," from Tearfund, a Christian aid agency based in Britain has stated, 'Churches' long reach, deep into people's psyche and far down pot-holed tracks into even the most remote villages, means they are uniquely placed to respond to people's needs. Their reach extends far beyond that of governments and NGOs.'
There are many forms of help depending on the ways in which each denomination or congregation is led. Some churches have undertaken care for AIDS orphans or children of debilitated parents. Others lobby governments and international agencies on behalf of the worst-hit communities. In addition all can pray for physical healing, for spiritual enlightenment, and for the healing of prejudices and misconceptions about AIDS. An important step towards healing would be by affirming a divine love for that person rather than seeing someone's sickness as godly punishment.
Presently a large amount of work is needed to erase misconceptions. Afflicted members are often blamed by families, shunned at businesses, on the streets, and even at their church.
In Africa HIV/AIDS is mostly spread through heterosexual relations with most of the victims being women and their unborn children. Folk beliefs that advise men that they can be cured of AIDS through sex with a virgin only compound the problem further and need correction.
Kubatsirana ("helping one another") is a church-led effort in Mozambique that has provided home care for the sick as well as prevention programs. The Balm in Gilead is a US-based coalition of 12,000 African-American church congregations which trains members in several African countries to design successful AIDS education programs.
According to one Balm in Gilead official nearly everyone in sub-Saharan Africa considers themselves either a Christian or Muslim which would mean that when a Christian pastor or a Muslim imam speaks, an African man will listen. Reinforcing marital fidelity itself can be of great help in combating AIDS.
Advocating the use of condoms has become an issue for some churches. Such churches do have the option of leaving that message to government or others while they contribute in other valuable ways.
As the old African-American spiritual says, echoing the biblical phrase, "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole." Therefore to reinforce the role of religions around the world, they have unique spiritual and temporal resources to offer in helping to heal the AIDS crisis.