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28 June 2001

After UN special session on HIV/AIDS, religious communities need to mobilize their own constituencies for more effective action

cf. WCC Press Update, Up-01-20, of 26 June 2001
cf. WCC Press Update, Up-01-18, of 25 June 2001
cf. WCC Press Release, PR-01-16, of 19 June 2001
cf. WCC Press Update, Up-01-15, of 31 May 2001

Members of a World Council of Churches (WCC) team present in New York for the United Nations (UN) session on HIV/AIDS said religious leaders now need to follow up by mobilizing their own constituencies for more effective action. They also need to work closely with non-governmental organizations to hold governments accountable to their commitments.

The special session of the UN General Assembly on HIV/AIDS, the first ever devoted to a health issue, took place from 25-27 June. It ended with adoption of a Declaration of Commitment to address "one of the most formidable challenges to human life and dignity".

Christoph Benn, a medical doctor at the German Institute for Medical Mission in Tübingen and a member of the commission that guides the health-related work of the WCC, led a four-member team that followed the session for the Council. Team members talked with government delegates and representatives of other religions and non-governmental organizations present in New York.

Assessing the session, Benn and Manoj Kurian, WCC programme executive for health and healing, said the Declaration disappointed by not going far enough, and not responding adequately to the needs. Both nonetheless felt the Declaration was historically significant as a "moment of recognition" - the first time such a statement has been approved at the level of a UN General Assembly. They also expressed special appreciation for a broadened approach to prevention apparent in the Declaration's final draft.

At preparatory meetings earlier this year, WCC team members had deplored limits on the draft Declaration to a primary focus on condoms. They had called for efforts to move beyond polarization in which churches were calling only for changes in sexual behavior and governments were focussing exclusively on condoms.

The final draft accepted a balanced approach, and urged "a wide range of prevention programmes" encouraging "responsible sexual behaviour, including abstinence and fidelity" as well as expanded access to condoms.

Faith-based organizations were mentioned in a long list of groups that should work in partnership on AIDS. And significant recognition was given to faith-based organizations in the selection of Benn as one of the non-governmental representatives invited to address the General Assembly on the final day.

The Declaration called for establishment of "a global HIV/AIDS and health fund", but Benn and Kurian said it lacks specifics about who will supply the money, who will administer it and how it will be spent. Civil society, including faith-based organizations, should have some role in monitoring the fund.

They also called upon churches in the North to further mobilize their own financial resources to support AIDS programmes. All churches should engage congregations and individual workers down to the village level to speak openly about both prevention and care, thus ending the silence still maintained in many places regarding HIV/AIDS.

Benn and Kurian also said a statement drawn up by representatives of faith-based organizations under WCC leadership at the session provided a basis of interfaith cooperation on HIV/AIDS in the future. The statement was publicized at the session. A large number of denominational bodies, including Jewish and Muslim organizations, endorsed it and additional endorsements came after its release.

Members of the WCC delegation:
Dr Christoph Benn, Co-ordinator of the Ecumenical Team facilitated by the WCC, Germany
Rev. Gideon Bymugisha, Anglican Church of Uganda
Dr Manoj Kurian, Programme Executive for Health and Healing, WCC
Sr. Patricia Walsh, International Christian AIDS Network, Zimbabwe

Plenary Presentation at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS by Dr Christoph Benn representing the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the WCC, June 27, 2001

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.