Organizers of a demonstration arranged 8,000 candles in the shape of Africa in a square in Berne, Switzerland on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1.
From the lighting in Switzerland of 8,000 candles laid out in the shape of Africa, the ringing of bells for 60 seconds in Israel to masses and vigils in churches around the world, nations commemorated World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, amid the sobering reality that more than 40 million today are estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS.
“I have learned to see everyone infected as a brother, a sister, a niece, a nephew – a close relative,” said Rev. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, at an ecumenical event held outside the Swiss parliament. Mr. Kobia said he has lost several close relatives to the disease and has learned to relate “more personally” to the issue. But, he added, “this epidemic goes way beyond any personal tragedy.”
During the event, titled “Africa needs medicines, now!,” participants presented a petition with 27,000 signatures urging the Swiss government, the pharmaceutical industry and churches to redouble their efforts in ensuring that anti-retroviral treatments reach African populations. Latest figures released by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that sub-Saharan Africa remains the region hit hardest by HIV-AIDS, with 25.8 million people living with HIV. WHO statistics also showed that there were nearly five million new HIV infections in 2005.
“Our church has AIDS. Our world has AIDS. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is sweeping over God’s creation and we are called to solidarity, to love, to compassion, to justice,” Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada said in a letter to the church. “There is hope through advocacy for life-saving drugs. There is hope for educational practices to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. There is hope for scientific research that will make a medical breakthrough. There is hope if we act now.” He urged Canadian Anglicans to “rise to the challenge” and support Partnership for Life, a campaign by the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) to raise $1 million to support church partners overseas who are involved in stemming the pandemic.
Among the local church activities in Canada was a service at St. Andrew’s church in Kelowna, B.C., where a “ribbon of hope” was draped over the altar; parishioners were given a chance to walk around the altar in silence, while the organist played background music.
In Cape Town, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, primate of South Africa, said his church’s main focus is fighting the stigma associated with the disease. “We believe all humans are equal. Thus, we should treat each other with mutual care and respect, regardless of social status, faith, gender or life style,” he said. “We are striving to break the silence and emphasize that God does not discriminate between those who are HIV positive and those who are HIV negative.”
China, whose government acknowledged the existence of HIV/AIDS among its population only in recent years, commemorated World AIDS Day with an announcement from Beijing that a campaign would be launched to educate millions of migrant workers who flock to urban areas in search of jobs. The United Nations program on HIV/AIDS estimates that between 430,000 and 1.5 million Chinese are infected with HIV/AIDS. But NGOs and AIDS activists have warned of an impending pandemic – at least 10 million infections by 2010 – unless a drastic intervention happens.
At the U.N., Secretary General Kofi Annan called on governments to meet the Millennium Development goal of reversing the epidemic by 2015. “It is time to recognize that although our response so far has succeeded in some of the particulars, it has yet to match the epidemic in scale,” he said in a message.
Miloon Kothari and Paul Hunt, special rapporteurs on adequate housing and on physical and mental health of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, emphasized that women and girls bear the brunt of HIV-AIDS.
“Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are fundamental elements in reduction of their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and the reversal of the pandemic,” they said in a statement.