KIEV Ukraine - Thousands of religious activists paraded through Kiev on Sunday, urging bystanders to turn to God and fight AIDS in the biggest demonstration yet seen in the Ukrainian capital.
Upwards of 15,000 people from churches and religious organisations across Ukraine marched, cheered and sang their way through the city centre in a demonstration which dwarfed recent protests against President Leonid Kuchma.
"AIDS is not a problem for God," marchers chanted as they walked, clapped and danced down the main Kreshchatyk street in a well-orchestrated action that must have been the envy of organisers of this year's often ragged political protests.
The demonstrators, of all ages and mostly well-dressed in disciplined ranks, carried national flags and banners proclaiming "Turn to God, he will help" and "You have a chance."
Families, Orthodox priests, Jewish and lesser-known religious groups walked together in the peaceful demonstration, organised under the slogan "Love against AIDS." Police estimated that at least 15,000 took part.
Onlookers stood quietly, many bemused by the scale of the spectacle. Kiev has seen a string of demonstrations this year, but they were focused on the scandal of a murdered reporter and have now petered out.
Post-Communist era Ukraine has seen a flowering of mainstream and minority religious movements as its citizens embraced the greater freedom to worship in the decade following independence from Moscow in 1991.
Kiev has seen frantic rebuilding and renovation work of churches and religious sites, helped by an influx of funds from Ukrainians abroad.
EXPLOSIVE SPREAD OF AIDS
But that newfound freedom has also seen an explosion in drug abuse, the sex trade, and the spread of AIDS. Poverty, unemployment and ignorance are fuelling the fire -- AIDS is spreading faster among Ukraine's 49 million people than anywhere else in Europe, official figures show.
There are more than 37,000 people registered as having the HIV virus which causes AIDS, chiefly drug users, but the World Health Organisation said recently it believed the figure could be 10 times higher.
A study by the Economics Institute of the Ukrainian Academy of Science said the AIDS epidemic in Ukraine could kill between 900,000 and 2.1 million people, with health experts predicting a peak between 2007-2016.
The demonstrators urged Ukrainians to embrace religion and stiffer morals.
"I've come here today to affirm my love of God and protest against AIDS. I want young people to realise they have a chance with Jesus," Vitaly, a student from Kiev, said.
Others were not so convinced.
"They can sing all they like. It's not going to help," grumbled a taxi driver whose car had been trapped by the unexpectedly large march.
"They'd have done better handing out condoms."
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