Faith at AIDS 2018

Providing space for networking, learning and advocacy among people of faith responding to HIV and AIDS

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Speaking with a Common Voice

Speaking with a Common Voice

David Barstow (left) attends an interfaith prayer breakfast in New York City, September 2017, aimed to mobilize faith-based efforts to overcome HIV and AIDS. Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

25 June 2018

by David Barstow

Religious organizations have been at the forefront in providing services to people living with HIV since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Even now, a large proportion of HIV services are provided by organizations with a religious connection.

Unfortunately, religious beliefs and practices have also been used to promote judgmental attitudes toward people living with HIV. The resulting stigma and discrimination have been major barriers to effectively responding to AIDS. Many people who have been marginalized by society see religion as a problem rather than as a solution.

The problem is compounded by the fact that followers of different religious traditions have often spoken differently about how to deal with the AIDS epidemic. Yet, despite these different ways of speaking, there is a common thread in what they say. I recall hearing almost identical words from two colleagues, each committed to ending the AIDS epidemic, but representing what are often called the conservative and liberal sides of Christianity. “We can’t treat our way out of this epidemic.” The common thread is a recognition of the social and moral complexities of the AIDS epidemic, and a commitment to dealing with those complexities in a way that helps bring the epidemic to an end.

Beginning with discussions at the WCC-EAA strategy meeting in September 2017, a group of us has been working to articulate what religious AIDS activists have in common, rather than focusing on our differences. As one group member said, “There’s 99% that we have in common.” The result of these discussions is a document stating our interfaith commitment to ending AIDS, which will be released publicly at Faith Building Bridges*, an interfaith event in Amsterdam on July 21-22, the weekend before the 18th International AIDS Conference.

After Faith Building Bridges, we hope to build on this shared commitment in several ways. One important way is stronger global advocacy, which is especially important when there are signs that the global response to AIDS is weakening. The moral authority of strong unified advocacy by prominent religious leaders will help push the world’s political and economic leaders to strengthen, rather than weaken, the global AIDS response.

Another way to build on this commitment is to facilitate cooperation and collaboration among local faith communities. Working together, faith communities of different traditions can ensure that the full range of HIV services is available within their community, even when it is not possible for individual faith communities to do everything.

A third way to work together is to build on a shared commitment to reach out to the marginalized and to protect the vulnerable, to help ensure that comprehensive HIV prevention and treatment services are available to all who need them, with dignity and respect, and without fear of stigma, discrimination, or criminal prosecution.

If it’s true that “We can’t treat our way out of this epidemic,” then a continued strong voice reflecting the common values of diverse religious traditions is a necessary and vital part of bringing an end to the AIDS epidemic.

*More information about the Faith Building Bridges event can be found here:

Direct access to the registration site is here: