International AIDS conference draws religious activists

Lucy Chumbly at Episcopal News Service reports on the International AIDS Conference and the gathering of religious activists.

Faith in the face of discrimination and disease can be difficult, but for more than 750 activists who have arrived in Washington, D.C., ahead of the July 22-27 International AIDS Conference to take part in an interfaith pre-conference, it is also indispensable.

Joining the main event, Turning the Tide Together, which will draw more than 20,000 participants from around the globe, and the two-day pre-conference, Faith & AIDS 2012: Taking Action Together, which kicks off July 20 at Howard University, are 26 witnesses from the 76 countries where being LGBT is illegal.

The witnesses, who each have a faith connection, were brought to Washington by “The Spirit of 76,” a program of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and the COMPASS Coalition, nonprofits working to end the criminalization of LGBT citizens and to foster dialogue and reconciliation.

They have traveled from as far afield as Singapore and Uganda to share their personal stories and to build partnerships to enable greater engagement and collaboration in the area of faith and rights.

Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon and other religious leaders took part in a blessing of the AIDS quilt at the Washington (DC) National Cathedral. Photos here. Quilt panels will be on display at the Cathedral through July 26.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson issued a joint statement:

We join together as Presiding Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Episcopal Church to welcome the 20,000 people traveling from 200 countries to the United States for the 2012 International AIDS Conference.

The body of Christ is global. It is impoverished and wealthy; it is diverse in gender and in sexual orientation; it is African, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, and Indigenous; it is old and young; it has large families and orphaned youth. And it is HIV-positive.

We commend the Obama Administration for lifting the travel constraints that for more than two decades prevented HIV-positive persons, including Lutherans and Anglicans, and all others living with HIV or AIDS, from traveling to the United States. Faith-based advocates played a key role facilitating this change, which enabled this year’s “AIDS 2012” conference to be housed in our nation’s capital—a city itself deeply affected by the virus.

AIDS 2012 can be a defining moment for the history of engagement with HIV and AIDS. Promising new scientific advances and global investments now make it possible to turn the tide on HIV and AIDS, with new hope for a cure and the end of AIDS within our reach.

Yet the pandemic is far from over. Thirty-four million people around the world are living with HIV or AIDS and infection rates are growing in many parts of the world. Each year, 50,000 new cases of HIV infection are reported in the United States alone. HIV infection is part and parcel of the harmful cycles of poverty, which include homelessness, malnutrition, sexual violence, and incarceration. Vulnerable populations, including low-income communities, ethnic minorities, adolescents and youth, girls and women, sex workers, injected drug users, and men who have sex with men continue to face higher rates of infection and often have less access to affordable, life-sustaining treatments. This makes them even more susceptible to the debilitating effects of poverty.

We urge the United States to continue its leading effort to turn the tide on this pandemic. Our government must redouble efforts and strengthen funding for strong, comprehensive HIV and AIDS programs. These programs include the global President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and domestic programs that provide affordable access to antiretroviral treatments, palliative care, health services (including for victims of sexual violence), nutritious foods, HIV testing and counseling, and harm-reduction programs for drug users.

God also calls us, as members of the global body of Christ, to serve those who are suffering with HIV and AIDS with respect, support, and compassion.

Our churches must work to shatter the silence, stigma, and discrimination that perpetuate the invisibility of HIV-positive Lutherans and Episcopalians in our denominations, and continue to push them into the shadows of their own congregations.

We will join in unflagging work toward effective prevention, treatment, and care for all living with HIV or AIDS, tailored to the unique needs, culture, ethnicity, and identity of any given group.

We praise God for this global opportunity to turn the tide on AIDS—in our pews and our communities, in our denominations and in our state governments, in our Lutheran and Anglican global church bodies and with our interfaith partners—that the body of Christ may, within our lifetimes, be HIV-free.

In God’s Healing Presence,

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

The Episcopal Church

Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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