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Last Updated: Friday, 5 December, 2003, 09:18 GMT
Religions rise to Aids challenge

By Daniel Lak
BBC correspondent in Kathmandu

On the roof of their home in the Nepalese capital, 29-year-old Surendra Shaha and his mother are sitting with a Hindu priest, known as a pandit.

Surendra Shaha
Surendra Shaha says his weekly prayer ritual is helping him

Incense sticks smoulder and pots of coloured powders and oil lie in careful array.

The priest mutters verses from Hindu scripture, smears red paste on Surendra's forehead then blows on a conch shell to summon the gods.

Surendra is HIV positive and this is a weekly ritual organised by his mother to keep his spirits up, to bring him in touch with his culture and religion. By all accounts, it's working.

"He's doing very well," says Mrs Shaha, "thanks to the gods and the daily prayers."

They listen and respect us because we are monks. So much has changed
Ven Phra Tuangsit, Aids activist and monk

Surendra - wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "3 million", the worldwide death toll from Aids - says he has rediscovered his Hindu faith lately.

"My mother was always after me to pray more, to pay more attention to god. Now I do and it's working. I feel happy and healthy, I'm living a normal life."

Change of heart

The role of religion in combating HIV/Aids can be a controversial one.

Orthodox thinkers in most major faiths have, in the past, denounced those who fall ill with the virus that causes Aids, suggesting their fate is divine punishment for immoral behaviour - but no longer.

At a conference in Kathmandu this week, bringing together representatives of all of South Asia's many religious faiths and HIV/Aids activists, speaker after speaker has been calling for compassion and tolerance for victims.

Ven Phra Tuangsit
Ven Phra Tuangsit's Aids project in Thailand will be copied elsewhere

Unicef South Asia director Dr Sadig Rasheed says: "We need religious leaders to help us in every way, to pray for the sick, to comfort those inflicted and to help spread awareness and prevention strategies."

Once, Aids activists despaired at conservative religious attitudes.

The International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 was largely seen as a failure on the question of HIV/Aids, because the various religious delegates opposed measures like condom distribution to stop the spread of the disease.

"We thought we'd be fighting religion tooth and nail after that," said a member of a large international charity, requesting anonymity.

Star monk

The organisers of the Kathmandu meeting say things have changed; faiths and HIV/Aids workers are converging, compromising and learning to live with each other's attitudes and priorities.

One of the stars of this week's conference in Nepal is Buddhist monk Ven Phra Tuangsit from Nong Khai in Thailand.

Aids activist
An Aids activist addresses delegates at the Sai Baba temple

He leads a project called Sangha Metta that many want to see duplicated in other parts of South Asia.

Buddhist clerics involved in the project work with young people, sex workers and others to spread awareness of HIV/Aids, including demonstrating how to use condoms, if appropriate.

"At first people were worried that it was inappropriate," says the saffron clad monk, "for a Buddhist cleric to work with condoms and things, but now people realise that I'm practising Buddhist compassion and helping people avoid painful, humiliating illness."

"They listen and respect us because we are monks. So much has changed."

In the audience, listening to Tuangsit speak, are mosque imams from the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, perhaps the most religiously orthodox region of South Asia.

They sit alongside Catholic priests and discuss the meeting's progress in hushed tones, keeping their opinions to themselves for now.

But with HIV/Aids set to become South Asia's biggest public health challenge very soon, it's clear that the men and women who serve God have decided they have a role to play in helping the present and future victims of a dreaded epidemic.

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