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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church Starts Drive to Stop AIDS

The Russian Orthodox Church kicked off a new program Tuesday to help stop the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has been snowballing in the country.

Government officials and UN experts praised the initiative as an important contribution by civil society, while others criticized the church for slow action and said the program was long overdue.

The program involves both spiritual guidance to HIV/AIDS patients and their families and practical assistance by priests and nuns helping out in hospitals.

Priests will be instructed to treat people infected with HIV/AIDS "as any other person suffering from some serious illness" and will be encouraged to promote tolerance for such patients among their congregations.

The program also calls for the setting up of hot lines for HIV/AIDS victims at churches and encourages nuns and other church servants to take care of ill patients at hospitals.

Priest Vladimir Shmal said the program was not limited to Orthodox Christians, but was open to any person seeking help.

HIV/AIDS appeared in Russia later than in other countries, but since the Soviet collapse it has been spreading at an alarming pace due to weak anti-drug and prevention programs. Experts say the number of HIV-infected tops 1 million -- three times the official statistics. Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov has called the disease a threat to the country's national security.

The church program calls for preventing the epidemic's spread by teaching religious morals and discouraging sex with multiple partners and homosexuality, which the church views as sinful.

"The disease and sin are very closely connected," said Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the church's top spokesman.

Alexander Goliusov, an AIDS expert with the Federal Consumer Rights and Public Well-Being watchdog, praised the church's cooperation in the fight against the disease.

"Federal authorities -- those that deal with this problem -- view the Orthodox Church as an extremely valuable and necessary partner in combating the epidemic."

Bertil Lindblad, UNAIDS representative in Russia, said the program illustrated the importance of public and religious organizations' involvement in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Some experts, however, criticized the church for being too slow to respond to the AIDS threat, saying it should have acted more promptly.

"Unfortunately, this concept appeared today -- better late than never," said Mikhail Narkevich, deputy head of the AIDS coordinating council with the Health and Social Development Ministry. "Other faiths have been more efficient in reacting to this problem."

Also Tuesday, Russia pledged to double its contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, promising to provide an additional $20 million from 2005 to 2008, RIA-Novosti reported, citing the Russian ambassador to Britain, Yury Fedotov, as saying in London.

Many of the world's richest countries were expected to make commitments Tuesday to support the fund, which has reported a shortfall, at a London meeting chaired by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.