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COMMENTARY: The quiet genocide – a call for religious conscience and action

Editor’s note: The San Diego-based St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation is having a fundraiser at Diversionary Theatre on Saturday, May 14, to help support the international fight for HIV prevention and care as well as global human rights. The evening begins with a cupcake and champagne reception at 6:30 pm, followed by a performance of the world premiere of “Dooley” at 8 p.m. Call (619) 220-0097 or visit HERE.

The Civil Society Hearing on the Global AIDS Pandemic at the United Nations ended April 8 on a note of pessimism. Despite the gains of the last decade in the diverse partnerships that created such wonderful institutions like the Global Fund, UNAIDS and setting goals for universal access to health care, experts fear we are all losing ground on the virus.

The reasons? Donor fatigue, a world recession and an unfortunate hardening of religious ideologies that is causing unnecessary human suffering, often in the name of God and morality.

The rising numbers of new HIV infections among LGBT people, sex workers and IV drug users is demanding a new commitment to uncomfortable yet honest dialogue to change national laws that have been influenced by religious institutions in a variety of faiths. Like the two religious figures in Jesus story of the Good Samaritan, it still remains to be seen if global religious institutions will intervene in a significant way or “pass by on the other side.”

An impressive cross-section of activists, religious, business and health professionals spent two days deliberating on what has been learned from the past decade and what needs to be done in the next. We all sat under the “Star Wars”-like dome of the UN General Assembly Building, which ironically wears a large white rubber cover (not unlike a huge condom!) because its leaky roof symbolizes the UN’s own financial problems. The Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, invoked Elizabeth Taylor as a model for our 21st-century activism through her words: “Never give up.”

Twenty years later, many things have changed. Six million people are on drug regimens when we need resources for 15 million. The goal for universal access to prevention and health services set by the UN for 2011 has not been reached, because of three factors:

Local and international commitments to many of the principles involved in the universal access goals have not been honored, i.e. developed countries committing to originally agreed levels of funding, sharing drug patents with developing countries or half the world’s governments maintaining legal and moral barriers to information and services like criminalizing of homosexuality, IV drug use, sex work or a failure to bring about tangible examples of gender equality.

We have been woefully unable as a family of nations to shift the attitudes of governments and religious institutions that see punishment of behavior as a brave but desperate attempt towards HIV prevention, rather than encourage greater local community and individual responsibility for health. Punishment and shaming are the wicked “twins” in an almost universal response to this pandemic. They are cleverly used by the virus to infect millions of new hosts. Very old cultural and religious taboos about purity and early public health (that shaped many of our sexual, legal and religious frameworks) continue to allow us to kill each other -- on a quiet but massive scale. They orchestrate a madness that has become a kind of “quiet genocide” of the human potential. As St. Paul would say, when one part of the body hurts or is infected, the whole body aches and is infected.

A theological shift in Christianity that de-emphasizes care for the marginalized and poor to a “Prosperity Gospel” and its wider cultural implications that it is now perfectly moral for rich people to see whole populations of people as “regrettably disposable.” This kind of “theological Darwinism” is at work in many developing national economies from care of the elderly, unemployed and ill, and expressed in our attitudes to places like New Orleans or Haiti after major disasters.

Christians used to protest on the streets and lobby our politicians for the common good, but today many Christians in the developed world thrive on supper clubs and jazz Masses. Contemporary successful churches provide entertainment and alternative forms of social networking.

This toxic cocktail of three changed realities makes the work of the international community more difficult, than say 20 years ago when there was more fluidity in attitudes towards a frightening new disease. Even thought we know we need to work together to deal with all the communities impacted by HIV, women (representing 51% of people with HIV yet are still underrepresented as decision makers) young people representing over 40% of HIV cases) face many barriers to self-protection because of religious and legal systems created by their grandparents and ancestors (i.e. laws which still criminalize LGBTI, sex workers, IV drug users), people with disabilities, homeless and migrant populations and refugees, remain voiceless. A miniscule fraction of the total HIV budget is actually targeted for these invisible and voiceless populations.

There are over 70 countries where homosexuality is still illegal. In Uganda, this means it is illegal to provide HIV prevention services and health services to LGBT people and sex workers. Many of these laws are products of religiously-based value systems, most of which were enforced by my fellow Anglicans from England in the 19th-century colonial period.

This really comes home when you read the legal document that convicts Ugandans of homosexuality graphically described as a crime” against God and the Ugandan Constitution.” Of the 54 former colonial countries that are now part of the British Commonwealth, 41 still have anti-homosexuality laws that are proven to prevent information and services going to some of the highest risk groups on the planet. Countries like Malawi recently added lesbianism to further criminalize homosexuality and Uganda is still attempting to introduce clauses in the former Bahati bill that would criminalize “the promotion of homosexuality,” which would undoubtedly drive HIV information further underground.

These moral battles, as we have seen in Uganda, are often driven by well- meaning Christian fundamentalists from the USA in a perverse kind of neo-colonialism. They have no idea of the fallout from these laws to millions of LGBT people who cannot access HIV prevention or care.

Seven countries have legislation that can mean women and LGBT people can be executed for sex outside of marriage. Religious influence (from fundamentalist Christianity to interpretation of Muslim traditions and law) remain seemingly insurmountable barriers for millions of marginalized human beings to access information and health services.

Only half of the global AIDS statistics actually report on what is being done for men who have sex with men, IV drug users and sex workers, and if you review the data, many countries like Uganda leave the report blank or say “NA.”

Why are we continuing to send HIV funding to countries who continue to discriminate against LGBT people and wish them dead? How much of my tax dollars will go this year to help kill millions of my LGBT brothers and sisters in this quiet genocide? Until the LGBT community in developing nations convinces their governments and businesses and religious institutions to actually do something about this, new infections will soar.

In South East Asia, for example, where some progress has been made in countries like Nepal, homosexuality was decriminalized and transgender people are now legally recognized with a significant decrease in HIV transmission. However, most countries still believe (often with pressure from religious leadership) that punishment remains the most important prevention method.

It is estimated that without a significant change in law and government inclusion of these criminalized populations, the infection rate among LGBT and men who have sex with men will triple in the next few years. This pattern was also reported at the UN hearing from other places like the Caribbean, where similar colonial laws prevent governments and churches to seriously engage LGBT people and others whose behavior is deemed immoral.

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, of Uganda, who spoke eloquently at the hearing on decriminalization and HIV prevention, recently wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury to speak clearly about the relationship between human rights and respect for them by the Anglican Church. The majority of countries with anti-gay laws on their books were introduced to anti-homosexuality laws by the archbishop’s Church of England in the 19th century under British imperial rule.

The bishop received no answer from the archbishop and yet he has a unique and symbolic leadership role and responsibility to help clean up the toxic waste of the church’s persecution of LGBT people on a global scale, particularly in Africa where there are 40 million Anglicans.

It is difficult for religious people to create a “moral space” when we consider behaviors immoral. Stories are read in our churches every Sunday about how Jesus constantly engaged with the “deemed” immoral of his day, but the institutional church (and Islam) are both failing as religious movements to practice their own form of “universal access.”

The result is a very quiet global genocide, particularly of gay people. World Health Organisation (WHO) projects that by 2020 around 46% of new infections in Asia will be among men who have sex with men, an over three-fold rise from the 2008 rate of 13%. In affluent urban centers like Singapore and Hong Kong, sex between men is the leading mode of transmission, reveals UNAIDS.

The statistics are now revealed. So now we know and we shall see in June if the government’s of the world and the faith traditions many of us share in will accept ownership of our co-complicity and make decisive actions in the name of something greater than ourselves.