Government agencies are turning to the Russian Orthodox Church for help in stemming the AIDS epidemic and ministering to victims. Photo: Shutterstock
Moscow – As the number of people suffering from HIV/AIDS continues to grow in Russia, government agencies are turning to the Russian Orthodox Church for help in stemming the epidemic, ministering to its victims, and fighting their stigmatization by society.In the latest example of such cooperation, officials in the Ryazan region, about 120 miles southeast of Moscow, announced on Nov. 30 that they have requested the local diocese’s assistance in providing an approach to the crisis that is beyond the state’s capacity.
"The problem of HIV and AIDS infection is first of all connected with spirituality," Sergei Safonkin, the regional head of Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s consumer rights watchdog agency, told reporters. "That’s why our branch has asked Metropolitan Paul of Ryazan and Mikhalkovsk to create a special department to deal with this problem. The experience of other regions has shown that the joining of forces of secular and religious institutions is very effective in fighting HIV and AIDS."
Gay men account for only about 1.5 percent of HIV/AIDS victims in Russia, said Margarita Nelyubova, who works on AIDS prevention and treatment programs on behalf of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations. The church has been at odds with Russia’s gay community over its vocal objections to gay pride parades.
Russia’s Federal AIDS center reported nearly 637,000 registered HIV infections in Russia as of Nov. 1. The Soviet Union began to count HIV patients only in 1987; since then, more than 104,000 people have died of AIDS.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s work with HIV/AIDS victims has often grown out of its drug treatment programs. Gennady Udovichenko of Russia’s state anti-drug committee said at a conference at the Danilov Monastery in October that the church, which has more than 40 drug treatment centers, has become an "active partner of the state" in prevention programs and treatment of addicts, including those with HIV.
According to Nelyubova, the Russian Orthodox Church has HIV/AIDS programs across Russia, from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea-one of the first centers of the Russian AIDS epidemic in the 1990s-to Ivanovo, a textile industry center northeast of Moscow, and Tomsk, a university town in Siberia.
The church’s charity and medical network includes the "sisters of mercy," who care for the elderly and infirm. Some sisters have been so effective at helping AIDS sufferers they have been invited to train students at state-run medical colleges, said Nelyubova.
Nelyubova said she faced once skepticism from state officials and representatives of Russian NGOs and international organizations at HIV/AIDS conferences when they heard she was from the church. "Ten years later, it turns out that the church’s experience is in great demand, has been recognized, and we no longer see those skeptical smiles."
She said the church has also been working with state schools on a program for teens about the dangers of drugs and sexual promiscuity.
Nelyubova’s husband, Rev. Vladimir Shmaly, an official of the Department of External Church Relations, holds a monthly prayer service for HIV/AIDS victims. The tea and fellowship afterwards has turned into a kind of group therapy.
"Maybe the state is seeking the church’s help out of desperation, since their programs are not working," he said.
AIDS, he said, illustrated in concentrated form how "society has been damaged by sin."
"It’s not just that sin leads a person to fall ill and be punished by God," said Shmaly. "It’s that the matrix of society itself has been damaged. Alienation leads to drug addiction, and so forth. Society must to a large extent take a look at itself. It produces the growth of this epidemic."