While 55-year-old M.K. Sridhar was making a statue, his voice cracked with emotion. "My life is re-formed, like a statue," he said. "It was like the wasted paper pulp in my hands." Sridhar is in a rehabilitation program at a Christian institute in Bangalore, India. He was abandoned by his family and friends when they discovered he had AIDS. "It's only the Christians who lent me a hand and saved me from shame and humiliation. Now I can die with dignity."Four million people in India have HIV; that makes them the largest HIV population in Asia and one of the largest in the world, according to T. Walia, deputy World Health Organization representative to India. Nearly 19 million worldwide have died from AIDS since the start of the epidemic in the 1980s. Even worse: throughout India, social stigma, isolation, and ostracism greet HIV sufferers every day. In the northeastern state of Manipur, some AIDS patients have been chained or sent to prison. Many of India's citizens see people with AIDS as beyond help, contagious, and destined to die isolated from family and friends.Christian churches have stepped forward into these desperate situations."The positive thing is that the churches are breaking [the] silence," says Antonia Andrew, a program manager with Christian AIDS/HIV National Alliance (CANA). "There was a time when [churches] wouldn't talk about AIDS; pastors wouldn't shake hands with a person with HIV. Now many churches have opened their premises for AIDS-related work."CANA was established two years ago to mobilize the church in India to respond to the growing AIDS epidemic. The group works with churches and organizations, developing HIV/AIDS-related programs.Prevention is at the top of churches' priority list. "The church will have to play a greater role in educating people, particularly the youth," says Gordon Alexander, senior country program adviser with United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS). "Emphasis will have to be on prevention as 90 percent of the affected patients aren't even aware that they have been infected." Alexander estimates the epidemic will have spread significantly in all the Indian states by 2005. Still, many Indians oppose sex education in schools and colleges. Alex Vadakumthala, executive secretary of the commission for the health care apostolate of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, describes what happens when people try to help. In one district, "ambulances carrying AIDS patients to a nearby secluded leper colony for care have been stoned and even set ablaze by angry villagers."Some see the epidemic as a challenge to change behavior. "Religion must provide moral support," says John Dayal, executive committee member of All India Christian Council. "The church must reach out to the young and instill values so that they don't fall prey."A 'rubber attitude' to AIDS won't do, where you mess around with a pack of condoms in your pocket. Prophylactics are no remedy to HIV; attitudes are, commitments are. And the church needs to enforce this attitude."

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Taking Up the Shovel

In the midst of India's AIDS epidemic, the church has been waging a silent war, doing good work away from the center of attention. "I've been most struck by seeing the missionaries taking care of patients, in advanced stages of the disease, with faith and determination," Alexander says. "They have provided hope and dignity to those AIDS patients who have been rejected by society and are destitute." Vadakumthala says. "In Kerala, when the local grave diggers refused to dig graves for the HIV/AIDS patients, the pastors took up the shovel and became gravediggers."Historically, Christians in India have been at the forefront of healthcare movements, such as the fight against leprosy, and they have provided both physical and spiritual care to the terminally ill. With HIV, the church is providing care that other institutions are reluctant to provide."The church now has a greater role to play," says Shailendra Awale, a physician and secretary of the Christian Medical Association of India. "It's only Christian hospitals where the HIV patients are not turned away."Awale says government programs are highly inadequate to meet the need and "a number of private NGO's [nongovernment organizations] are in the fray to mint money out of this epidemic.""Our attitude has to be nonjudgmental, of compassion and loving care as taught in the Bible," says Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India."We can't discriminate or run away from the AIDS-affected. Anybody who calls himself a follower of Jesus has to help."

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today's previous coverage of Christianity in India includes:Plans to Resolve India's Interfaith Tensions Face Delays and Accusations | Did India's National Commission for Minorities plan a meeting to discredit Christians? (July 20, 2000) India's First Dalit Archbishop Holds 'No Grudge' Over Predecessor's Attack | Once "untouchable" Dalits make up bulk of country's Christians. (May 11, 2000) India's Christians Resist Move to Register Conversions | State's legislation unconstitutional, says leaders. (May 2, 2000) Build Bridges, but Fight Fanaticism, India's Churches Told | National Council of churches in India will work against strengthening of caste system. (Mar. 9, 2000)Christianity Today has also covered the impact of AIDS worldwide. Read last February's cover story about AIDS in Africa, Have We Become Too Busy With Death? .For a list of NGO's fighting AIDS in India click here . Statistics about AIDS in India are available from many universities and research centers.The National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), is the governmental organization for the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS in India .Other stories about AIDS in India include CNN's article on AIDS impacting Indian children and BBC's look at AIDS organization's outreach to Asian men .

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