Russian church struggles against AIDS

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

Government officials and U.N. 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, according to the AP.

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 setting up 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 came to 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 people tops 1 million _ three times the official statistics. Russian Deputy Primer 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 may lead to infection and which the church views as sinful.

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