A popular march through the streets of Durban, South Africa, demanding better funding for HIV and AIDS treatment  during the 2016 International AIDS Conference. © Paul Jeffrey/WCC

A popular march through the streets of Durban, South Africa, demanding better funding for HIV and AIDS treatment during the 2016 International AIDS Conference. © Paul Jeffrey/WCC


The 21st International AIDS Conference, which concluded July 22, had its normal dose of science speak, with seminars and workshops ranging from new vaccine trials to the testing of a vaginal ring that appears to dramatically lower the risk of HIV infection in women.

A biennial event, the 2016 Conference drew thousands of scientists, public-policy professionals, persons living with HIV and activists to Durban, South Africa, for the five-day gathering under the theme “Access Equity Rights Now.”

Yet from the very first day, it was clear that science is only part of the solution, because AIDS is more than a simple virus.

In the opening plenary, South African actress Charlize Theron declared, “AIDS does not discriminate on its own. It has no biological preference for black bodies, for women’s bodies, for gay bodies, for youth or for the poor. It doesn’t single out the vulnerable, the oppressed, or the abused. We single out the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the abused. We ignore them. We let them suffer. And then, we leave them to die.”

The role of faith communities

As faith leaders from around the world met before and during the conference to reflect on their own role in fighting the epidemic, they were repeatedly praised for the work they’ve done and then challenged to do more.

In an interfaith gathering on the eve of the conference organized by the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (WCC-EAA), a top United Nations official warned the religious community that despite fewer people dying every year from AIDS, the wily virus refuses to go away.

“At the same time we are saving more lives than ever, the AIDS epidemic is coming back, it is rebounding and reemerging everywhere. The difference now to what we saw in the past is that the epidemic is much more selective, it’s affecting the ones you faith leaders care most about, the ones left behind, the last and the least in your societies. This is the modern shape of the AIDS epidemic,” said Luiz Loures, the deputy executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and assistant secretary-general of the United Nations.

Loures said the medical and scientific communities need to go beyond traditional approaches as they respond to the new challenges, and faith communities must play a central role.

“It’s not just medicines and what happens in clinical wards and health centers that will solve this crisis. At the end it’s about how we approach people, about ethics, about what brings us together to work for better societies, societies that our children will be proud to live in,” he said.

Loures said the churches’ focus on community-based health care usually works “faster and cheaper” than other responses to AIDS, and he praised the closeness of faith communities to affected populations. Loures said the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa proved the churches’ ability to respond quickly.

“Readiness is a new concept. Children who need treatment can’t wait. They’ll die first if we don’t take action. Readiness is related to proximity to people, and during the Ebola crisis the churches’ health workers were on the front lines and paid a high price for taking risks,” he said.

“Don’t be humble. What you have done, the places you have worked, the ones you have lost, you should be proud of all this. Come with us and take the central role you should occupy in our response to AIDS,” Loures said. “We need your experience and your approach to move us forward.”

Fast track to zero

Much of the discussion among religious leaders at the conference centered around how faith-based organizations can contribute to the “Super Fast Track” - a coordinated surge in testing and treatment among children over the next two years. But testing and treatment for adults also remains a critical issue. The UNAIDS “Fast Track” initiative emerges from recognition that if the HIV response only grows at the same rate as it has during the last five years, the epidemic will only grow worse, and hopes of ending AIDS as a significant public health issue by 2030 will quickly fade.

Said Sally Smith, the senior advisor for faith-based organizations at UNAIDS,  “Science and treatment on its own are not enough. We cannot just treat our way out of this epidemic. We need to address the social determinants that are driving the stigma and discrimination to prevent people from getting tested and staying on treatment. We know that the faith communities are central. In many of the countries where we have a high prevalence of HIV, they provide a large proportion of the healthcare. And religious leaders are determinants of what is provided in those health centers. They are also gatekeepers of public opinion about stigma, and they can also mobilize those communities to take up testing and treatment. Or not.”

Scaling up, not slowing down

What many at the conference dubbed “AIDS fatigue” also threatens the world’s response to the disease.

“After 35 years of responding to an emergency, it’s hard to go that last mile,” Smith said. “People in the north and the west have witnessed how the treatment of HIV means the disease no longer rapidly kills people in their teens and 20s and 30s. It has gone off the radar. At the same time there are massive migration issues in Europe and other things grabbing the media’s attention. Responding to AIDS seems like an old issue to many people. Yet it is just at this critical point where we have the medicine and science to end the epidemic as a public health threat, that the interest and the funding are disappearing.”

The Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, executive director of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living With or Personally Affected by HIV & AIDS (INERELA+), said silence has become a major challenge. “Although stigma has been reduced, it’s now silence that is rampant. This type of quiet withdrawal and disengagement is worse than the overt stigma, which we could deal with,” she said.

Offering praise for the contribution of faith-based organizations in preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus, Ambassador Deborah Birx, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, warned religious leaders that they can’t abandon the children now.

Of particular concern, she said, were girls, “one-third to half of whom are no longer in school because their families can't afford it or because they have to work in a household. And we know that for one-third of young girls in sub-Saharan Africa, their first sex is forced or coerced. So a third of our young women that we've saved from HIV are being raped in their communities. These are the issues that we have to talk about. We have to challenge the culturally accepted practice that girls are not in high school and that young girls are raped within their communities.”

The pastoral challenges

According to the Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, who coordinates the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA) program of the WCC, responding to such challenges will mean retooling how religious communities think about themselves.

“One of the things we have done well as faith-based organizations is outreach, but we haven’t done nearly enough in-reach,” she said. “Has the work we are doing transformed our theologies?”

Njoroge pushed religious leaders present in Durban to also strengthen their pastoral support for survivors of abuse. “We need intergenerational communication on sex and sexuality between parents and children and grandparents,” she said. “We address sexual and gender violence and yet we lack the skills to support the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, especially the girls who are raped and end up with HIV. This is a major gap for us, and demands long-term commitment and accompaniment.”

Religion, sex workers, and drug users: no casting stones

Among the religious leaders attending the conference was Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. He stopped by the Interfaith Networking Zone in the conference’s Global Village on July 19, chatted with people there, but then needed to leave for a press conference.

The Global Village was a wild maze of displays, booths and discussion areas sponsored by special interest groups representing all sorts of people touched by AIDS. Right across from the interfaith area was the Sex Workers Networking Zone. Makgoba stopped there and introduced himself to the women.

Among those who shook hands and spoke with the archbishop was Babalwa Matikinca, an educator who runs support groups in the Eastern Cape for the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT). She says the church needs to cross into their world more often.

“Sex workers are often operating in hideaway zones, their work unknown to their family because there is a lot of stigma. They feel alone. The church should be a place where they can find comfort and support to help them cope. Just like Jesus, who, when people wanted to stone a sex worker, said that only those who hadn’t sinned could do it,” she said. “Jesus loves these women. His church should be a place where they feel welcome. They are responsible women, working hard to support their families.”

Makgoba’s visit provoked some new conversations. Lyn van Rooyen, director of the Christian AIDS Bureau of Southern Africa, sat down to talk with some of the women the archbishop had met, and they agreed to a series of future encounters between sex workers and pastoral agents.

Sex workers, along with injecting drug users and men who have sex with men, are a key demographic in the struggle against AIDS. Stigmatizing or criminalizing them is widely seen as counterproductive, yet for some religious leaders with narrow limits on acceptable behavior, reaching out to these and others at the margins has stretched their understandings of sin and grace. Crossing from their religious space to the world where real people struggle isn’t easy.

God, however, would appear to have already made the journey. The SWEAT office in Cape Town already has a weekly support group for Christian sex workers, where participants share their struggles and pray for each other. The women run the group themselves.

Coverage of faith-based issues and activities at AIDS 2016

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For more information contact Sara Speicher,, +44 7821 860 723; or Marianne Ejdersten, WCC director of communication,, +41.79.507.6363