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Church and HIV/AIDS

What the Church can do?

Christian churches in Russia have not been actively involved in the problem of HIV/AIDS as yet. Some priests in the Russian Orthodox Church have given pastoral care and support to HIV-infected adults and children in their parishes individually. On the level of centralized and officially organized initiatives, however, nothing has been done and aid programs have been virtually absent. To a certain degree this is due to the fact that people in the Church, just as in our society as a whole, know little about this disease. Their attitude is dominated by false stereotypes, and there is no clear understanding of what the role of the Church could be in overcoming this problem.

With the present growth rate of the AIDS epidemic in Russia, the Church should now take active actions to help prevent the epidemic from further spreading. The task of the Church in this respect is first of all to offer pastoral care and spiritual and psychological support to the carriers of the immunodeficiency virus and to their relatives and friends who suffer together with them. Another task of the Church is to take an active part in the preventive work. It is necessary to carry out educational and pedagogical work with children and youth and those who communicate and work with them, namely, their families, doctors and teachers.

Unfortunately, though 20 years have passed since the world discovered the immunodeficiency virus, the general situation in our country in this respect can be described as general ignorance. What is also disturbing is the lightheartedness with which this problem is treated not only by young people - which is understandable in a way - but also adults who, working with these young people directly, are responsible for them.

Nowadays the Church has ample opportunities for making an educational impact on children and youth. Among these opportunities are general schools where Basic Orthodox Culture is taught, Sunday schools with their extensive network at Orthodox parishes, various interests clubs organized by the Church for children, beginning from foreign language study circles to sports groups and summer camps organized by Orthodox brotherhoods and sisterhoods. All these areas of educational work can incorporate pedagogical efforts to help check the spreading of drugs and restore in our society, especially in the consciousness of children and youth, those Christian and universal humane values which will help them give more appreciation to their own family and strengthen relations with their parents and thus overcome those internal family problems which so often push them to the street, making them victims of drugs. These values will also help them restrain themselves from pre-marriage sexual relations as another channel of spreading the HIV infection.

The Church, though, in contrast to governmental and secular non-governmental organizations, has her own limitations in the work to overcome the HIV/AIDS problem, which, among other things, are due to her limited financial resources. For instance, the Church cannot undertake to provide medicines for all the HIV-infected people. She simply does not have enough resources for this. Nor is such form of work as exchange of syringes, practiced by many public organizations today, acceptable to the Church.

Of course, the Church can and must make a weighty contribution to the overcoming of the HIV/AIDS problem. However, it is evident that she, just as any other institution, is unable to change the situation radically on her own. We cannot even aspire to it. What is needed here is certainly cooperation with governmental and public organizations both in and outside Russia, who have accumulated a great experience of this work, and we should use it in joint programs. These programs should be negotiated with and accepted by the Church just as by public and governmental organizations, so that by joining efforts we could strengthen one another.

The first step the Church has made in giving support to people with HIV/AIDS has been the conducting of regular prayer services for the health of these people. The prayer services are held during the last weekend of each month simultaneously in several large cities including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Podolsk, Kaliningrad Region, Minsk and Tver. These prayer services are announced at the anonymous testing stations and AIDS centers, as well as through HIV-AIDS hotlines and the Internet.

The prayer services for the health of people with HIV is a very important development. Ardent support given to people with HIV-AIDS in prayer helps them struggle with the disease and see that the Church has not abandoned them in their misfortune.

Margarita B. Neliubova,
Department for External Church Relations
Moscow Patriarchate

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