Indian religious leaders join hands to fight HIV/AIDS

Religious leaders in India are being urged to educate their followers on the dangers of HIV/AIDS to prevent its spread and to reduce the stigma attached to the deadly virus.

In India's tradition-bound society, religious leaders wield enormous influence in shaping people's attitudes and prejudices, Hindu, Christian, Islamic and Buddhist leaders said Monday at a multi-faith meeting on the disease in New Delhi.

"In a society which is so ruled by morals, religious leaders can play a big role in taking the message of AIDS prevention to the population," said Enos Das Pradhan of the Church of North India, a Christian denominational church.

His views were echoed by many of the leaders, who said they had a responsibility to educate their devotees because government health and civic campaigns had failed.

"Medicine can cure a patient, but through religion we can cure society," said M. Mukaram Ahmed, chief Islamic cleric of New Delhi's Fatehpuri Mosque.

India, with 5.1 million cases, has the second-biggest population of HIV sufferers in the world after South Africa. Medical workers fear ignorance of and the stigma attached to the disease could push India into the top slot over the next few years.

Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu leader, called for changes in people's lifestyles _ which he called a "root cause for the spread of HIV/AIDS in society."

While the virus initially struck prostitutes and their clients, drug addicts, and homosexuals, increasingly stay-at-home housewives are falling victim to the disease _ infected by their husbands who visit sex-workers or have affairs.

Mohinder Singh, a Sikh leader, said truck drivers were responsible for the spread of the virus in many rural areas in northern Punjab state.

"The truck drivers are not unaware of the danger of getting infected, and are reluctant to even get themselves tested," Singh said.

Other speakers emphasized the need to reach out to young adults and teenagers who are highly vulnerable to the disease through direct contact and Internet help-lines.

"HIV/AIDS is still a taboo subject surrounded by fear, denial, hesitation, reluctance and above all a negative attitude," said Karuna Roy, coordinator for the Church of North India's HIV/AIDS program.