Engaging religious leaders in the fight against the AIDS pandemic has been a “slow and tortured process” said Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy on HIV/AIDS.
St. Catharines, Ont.
United Nations special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis challenged the church to “provide the religious leadership” that would help stem the AIDS pandemic not just in Africa but around the world.
“I beg you to allow the time and energy to address this,” said Mr. Lewis in his address to the meeting of General Synod. He said that engaging religious leaders around the world in the fight against the “extraordinary devastation” wrought by AIDS has been a “slow and tortured process,” since many still refuse to confront the stigma surrounding the deadly disease.
Mr. Lewis also chastised the United States and the developed world for ignoring the AIDS pandemic while spending enormous resources for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “There’s just been no political will. By the end of 2005, the United States (will have) spent $200 billion to fight the war in Afghanistan and Iraq but can’t find an infinitesimal portion of that money to save people’s lives,” he said. “What kind of explanation is there for that moral lapse?” He added, “You are people with a reading of religious text. You understand what’s ethical conduct. How is it possible to have this moral default?”
More than 40 million people around the world are infected with HIV, 27 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Three million people died last year as a result of AIDS.
Mr. Lewis, who is Canadian, spoke passionately about millions of children orphaned and now heading their households, women widowed or dying and grandparents now assuming the role of parents to their grandchildren as a result of AIDS.
“These children are so desperate for love and nurturing it’s so awful the way it’s been ripped from them,” he said of the so-called “sibling families,” or households headed by children, some as young as eight years old, whose parents have died of AIDS. “It’s such an aberration of the nature of the human family. None of this has to be. That’s what’s most appalling.”
There are an estimated 14 million children orphaned as a result of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, said Mr. Lewis, adding that by 2010 the figure is expected to rise to 25 million. “No words can convey what’s happening. There was a black death in the 14th century but not this scale,” he said. “We’ve never confronted a situation of orphans to this extent.”
The face of AIDS in Africa is that of a woman, said Mr. Lewis; about 58 per cent of AIDS victims in sub-Saharan Africa are women, he said, most of them in their productive age. AIDS is “depopulating women,” mostly because of gender inequality, he said “Women can’t say no to predatory men. They can’t negotiate safe sex.” He noted that most of the women are infected by their husbands.
Mr. Lewis said the inertia by world leaders toward the AIDS pandemic is reminiscent of the way “no one raised a finger” as millions of people were slaughtered in Rwanda in 1994. “The world has gone mad that we’ve allowed this to happen… It’s inexplicable,” he said, adding that the lack of response may be motivated by “an intense subterranean racism.”
In response to Mr. Lewis’ call, General Synod delegates passed a resolution endorsing the Partnership for Life Campaign of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), which has set a $1 million target for AIDS that will go towards funding AIDS-related programs in Africa.
The diocese of Fredericton and the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior (APCI, formerly the diocese of Cariboo) presented Mr. Lewis with cheques for programs funded by the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Christ Church, a small church in Cherry Valley, Prince Edward Island, presented PWRDF with $33,000 for its AIDS campaign, challenging other Anglican churches to also do their bit.
(Dr. Stephen Hart, an layman in the diocese of Fredericton, had asked his church to be involved in PWRDF’s HIV/AIDS relief and education campaign by contributing a toonie ($2 coin) or more in the collection plate each week or each month. The initiative raised more than $4,200. After reading about the toonie project in Anglican Journal, APCI decided to replicate the program and raised $2,800.)
Before Mr. Lewis’ address PWRDF representatives from various dioceses carried to the stage a Ribbon of Hope.
Mr. Lewis also encouraged Canadian Anglicans to express their solidarity with churches in Africa who have programs that address the AIDS problem by establishing “twinning relationships” that would provide resources and human exchanges.