The Associated Press
Published: November 9, 2006
CAIRO, Egypt: For the first time in the Arab world, Muslim and Christian clerics from 20 countries have together launched a project to tackle HIV/AIDS in their societies.
Announced at the end of the four-day Regional Forum for Religious Leaders on AIDS, the scheme aims to break the stigma attached the disease in the Arab world as well as provide medical support and counseling for HIV patients and their families.
"We have developed a plan of action to urgently respond to what is amounting to a region living on the brink of an epidemic," said Father Hady Aya, a conference delegate from the Maronite Church in Lebanon, where he works for the Justice and Mercy organization.
Silence about the nature and prevalence of HIV/AIDS tends to be the norm in the Arab world, where conservative traditions discourage any public discussion of sex. People who have tested positive for the HIV virus are often shunned and suffer discrimination.
"AIDS is an evil that is devouring Arab societies," said Rania Abdel Rahman, an activist from Sudan, which has by far the highest infection rate in the Arab world. The United Nations AIDS program and the WHO estimate that Sudan has 350,000 people infected with HIV more than 10 times the estimate for any other Arab country.
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The plan endorsed Thursday by 300 clerics Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and various Christian denominations is the first pan-Arab initiative to combat the spread of the disease, either from the public or private sector.
The clerics named it "Chahama," the Arabic word for magnanimity, saying the term conveyed "the necessary attitude" toward tackling HIV/AIDS.
The document distributed at the forum said the plan envisages steps to promote chastity, avoid prostitution, and to provide medical care and counseling spiritual as well as practical for HIV victims and their families.
There was no estimate of the annual cost of the plan, but the document said money would be raised through donations from mosques, private individuals as well as NGOs and international bodies. The plan will establish a Chahama bank account to receive donations in every Arab state.
"AIDS has ravaged my people for years," said Abdel Rahman from Sudan. "I don't want to see this monster do the same to the region. We have to stop it."