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Religious leaders to hold politicians to account on AIDS response

The United Nations is scheduled Friday to complete a three-day meeting on the global AIDS pandemic, and religious leaders say they are going to hold national leaders to account for what they say is continued slow progress in battling the crisis.

"My hope is that this is not just more paper," Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of South Africa told Ecumenical News International. "Words, words, words – they won’t help us fight the pandemic."

The 31 May-2 June meeting in New York marks 25 years since AIDS was first detected and comes five years after world leaders gathered at the UN and made a global commitment to stop the spread of AIDS and HIV infections.

Still, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke of fears by HIV-positive activists that diplomats might be "rolling back the gains" of the 2001 commitment.

"One of them pleaded ‘please don’t kill us with diplomacy, come up with real proposals that will help us on the ground’," Annan told journalists after meeting a group of people living with HIV.

Although rates of infection are down in some countries and regions, particularly in parts of Africa, they are increasing in others, most notably in India and in central Asia and Eastern Europe, according to a report issued at the conference.

"I’m a born optimist, but politicians are politicians," said Archbishop Ndungane, who is planning a global Anglican conference in South Africa in 2007 to formulate a church response to social issues ranging from AIDS to poverty and debt. "They [politicians] are lethargic when it comes to having the will to do things," added Ndungane. "That’s where civil society comes in: civil society needs to hold the leadership [accountable] over the promises they’ve made."

At a 30 May interfaith prayer service coordinated by the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, the president of the UN general assembly, Jan Eliasson of Sweden, acknowledged continued frustration over the global response to the AIDS/HIV crisis.

While citing progress made in the last 25 years including increased funding and better national and international coordination, Eliasson said there were no grounds for complacency.

"How can it be that 25 years into this pandemic," he said, "the rate of new infections is such that over 500 men, women and children – half of them under the age of 24 – will have been newly infected before we leave this building tonight?"

(c) Ecumenical News International