Religions rise to
On the roof of
their home in the Nepalese capital, 29-year-old Surendra Shaha and his
mother are sitting with a Hindu priest, known as a pandit.
Incense sticks smoulder and pots of
coloured powders and oil lie in careful array.
The priest mutters verses from Hindu
scripture, smears red paste on Surendra's forehead then blows on a conch
shell to summon the gods.
Surendra is HIV positive and this is
a weekly ritual organised by his mother to keep his spirits up, to bring
him in touch with his culture and religion. By all accounts, it's
"He's doing very well," says Mrs
Shaha, "thanks to the gods and the daily prayers."
Surendra - wearing a T-shirt
proclaiming "3 million", the worldwide death toll from Aids - says he
has rediscovered his Hindu faith lately.
"My mother was always after me to
pray more, to pay more attention to god. Now I do and it's working. I
feel happy and healthy, I'm living a normal life."
Change of heart
The role of religion in combating
HIV/Aids can be a controversial one.
Orthodox thinkers in most major
faiths have, in the past, denounced those who fall ill with the virus
that causes Aids, suggesting their fate is divine punishment for immoral
behaviour - but no longer.
At a conference in Kathmandu this
week, bringing together representatives of all of South Asia's many
religious faiths and HIV/Aids activists, speaker after speaker has been
calling for compassion and tolerance for victims.
Unicef South Asia director Dr Sadig
Rasheed says: "We need religious leaders to help us in every way, to
pray for the sick, to comfort those inflicted and to help spread
awareness and prevention strategies."
Once, Aids activists despaired at
conservative religious attitudes.
The International Conference on
Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 was largely seen as a
failure on the question of HIV/Aids, because the various religious
delegates opposed measures like condom distribution to stop the spread
of the disease.
"We thought we'd be fighting religion
tooth and nail after that," said a member of a large international
charity, requesting anonymity.
The organisers of the Kathmandu
meeting say things have changed; faiths and HIV/Aids workers are
converging, compromising and learning to live with each other's
attitudes and priorities.
One of the stars of this week's
conference in Nepal is Buddhist monk Ven Phra Tuangsit from Nong Khai in
He leads a project called Sangha
Metta that many want to see duplicated in other parts of South Asia.
Buddhist clerics involved in the
project work with young people, sex workers and others to spread
awareness of HIV/Aids, including demonstrating how to use condoms, if
"At first people were worried that it
was inappropriate," says the saffron clad monk, "for a Buddhist cleric
to work with condoms and things, but now people realise that I'm
practising Buddhist compassion and helping people avoid painful,
"They listen and respect us because
we are monks. So much has changed."
In the audience, listening to
Tuangsit speak, are mosque imams from the North West Frontier Province
of Pakistan, perhaps the most religiously orthodox region of South Asia.
They sit alongside Catholic priests
and discuss the meeting's progress in hushed tones, keeping their
opinions to themselves for now.
But with HIV/Aids
set to become South Asia's biggest public health challenge very soon,
it's clear that the men and women who serve God have decided they have a
role to play in helping the present and future victims of a dreaded