As governments across Asia grapple with a rising tide of HIV/AIDS, attention is turning to the role that faith-based groups can play in combating the virus.
Around 100 such groups are attending the 15th International AIDS Conference, which opened here Sunday amid fresh warnings of an escalating epidemic. While Africa has borne the brunt of global cases, Asia accounted for 1 in 4 new infections in 2003, according to the United Nations, which says that 38 million people are now living with HIV/AIDS.
"How you address this challenge will impact on the very future of the region," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told Asia-Pacific health ministers and senior officials Sunday. "Left unchecked, AIDS will not only devastate millions of lives; it will also impose huge burdens on the region's health systems and soak up resources that are badly needed for social and economic development."
India, with an estimated 5.1 million cases, is now second only to South Africa. While prevalence rates in Asia are still only a fraction of those of Africa, even small increases add up to large numbers of infected people. In China, this could mean 10 million cases by 2010, based on UN projections.
Given the reach of religions in Asia, health officials hope their social networks can be directed toward HIV/AIDS prevention and care.
This has already begun in some countries, notably Thailand and Cambodia, where Buddhist monks and nuns are using their authority to soften community hostility toward people living with the disease.
But elsewhere in Asia, health workers are meeting resistance to messages about sexuality and infection. In Indonesia, a conservative Muslim group forced TV stations to pull US-funded ads that tackled condom use by men who visit sex workers. Catholic bishops in the Philippines oppose condoms and other such family-planning methods.
What dismays some observers is the fear that Asia may be repeating the mistakes of Africa, where churches and mosques initially greeted AIDS with disbelief, hostility, and silence, which has only belatedly given way to compassion. Given the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in parts of Asia, aid agencies say there isn't the luxury of time for such a slow conversion. "Faith leaders in Asia see what happened in Africa as somehow different from what they face. This has to change," says Kenneth Casey, a senior vice president at World Vision, a Christian relief group based in the US.
Aid agencies point to Bangladesh's adoption of AIDS education into a Muslim training program as an example of changing mores. The state-sponsored Imam Training Academy introduced reproductive-health and HIV/AIDS-related topics to its curriculum in 2001 and encourages imams to deliver messages during sermons.
But for many religious leaders in Asia, as elsewhere, promoting condoms as a way to avoid infection is often considered a step too far. A greater emphasis is placed on abstinence. This stance creates a dilemma for anti-AIDS activists trying to reduce the stigma associated with the disease.
"The common conception is that [HIV/AIDS] comes from illegitimate sex and homosexuality, which are considered great sins ... and condoms are thought to be a way of promoting these illegitimate acts," says Asghar Ali, director of an Islamic institute in Bombay. Many imams claim that the virus can't be spread among the Muslim community because of its purity, he adds.
One country in Africa that has won praise for confronting the epidemic is Uganda. Islamic clerics played a crucial role in educating people about the disease and breaking taboos by discussing sexuality. A network of volunteers went house to house with tough prevention messages - including abstinence, fidelity, and condom use - and have also distributed drugs to AIDS patients.
Health experts say this could be repeated in Asia, where governments often lack resources to roll out national programs. By contrast, religious sects are ubiquitous and can mobilize volunteers at short notice. "Ten years ago I would have said that these groups are one of our obstacles. Today they're one of our allies," Peter Piot, head of the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS, told repor-ters in Bangkok.
That's certainly the case in Thailand, where some temples have been converted into hospices to treat the sick and care for orphaned children. Sangha Metta, a foundation in the north, trains Buddhist monks on HIV/AIDS prevention and how to tackle discrimination against those infected with the virus. Its programs have been adopted in Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and southern China.
Campaigners say such programs must be adopted by other faith groups without undermining their moral teachings, if the region is to learn from Africa's tragic example. "I hope in Asia we can avoid waiting 20 years for attitudes to change," says Mr. Casey.