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Slow church response to AIDS scolded

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Billy Graham's son, Franklin, chided the Christian Church Monday for its slow response to the global AIDS/HIV pandemic.

At the opening of a five-day International Christian Conference on HIV/AIDS in Washington, Graham said, "Shamefully, the Church of Jesus Christ has been somewhat asleep."

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He accused the church of "either not being involved or being of little help," and urged it to provide leadership in what Sen. Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) called "the most devastating crisis the world has ever seen."

Frist, a surgeon who has performed more than 200 organ transplants, is ranking minority member of the Senate subcommittee on Africa, where AIDS has devastated whole populations.

The conference, named Prescription for Hope, has attracted 830 participants from 87 countries to the Washington Hilton, a much higher turnout than Graham initially expected.

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"If Jesus Christ were here, we would find him in the forefront of this issue," said Graham, whose Samaritan's Purse organization convened this meeting. Graham pledged to make the HIV/AIDS pandemic his priority in the months and years to come.

"Forty million have been infected by this virus," he continued.

Added Frist, "East year, a staggering 3 million people die of AIDS. Someone dies from the disease every 10 seconds.

"About twice that many -- 5.5 million a year -- become infected," said Frist, who calculated the rate at two new infections every 10 seconds, or 15,000 a day.

"What's even more tragic is that 6,000 of those infected each day are young -- between the ages of 15 and 24."

In an interview with United Press International, the Rev. Angelo D'Agostino painted the grim prospect of 25 million African orphans roaming the streets, robbing and killing because their parents had lost their lives to the epidemic.

D'Agostino, a 76-year old Jesuit and psychiatrist from Rhode Island, runs an orphanage for 100 AIDS-infected children in Kenya. He stressed that this was not something that might happen sometime in the distant future.

"I am talking about a development we can expect within the next five or six years. What are you going to do with these out-of-control kids? Shoot them? Lock them up?"

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The Jesuit, a former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon, proposed one emergency solution to bridge the huge gap left by the death of an entire generation of young parents: "Build Cities of Hope, where the elderly live with orphaned children."

He said this would be one way of providing children with structure and supervision. Dolefully, he related, "I want to start a model community of this kind but have not yet been able to raise the $1 million I need for this project."

To illustrate the gravity of the situation, D'Agostino told the story of an Anglican priest who stood at a street corner in a small Kenyan town and observed 45 funeral processions go by in less than three hours.

In Kenya alone, 17 percent of the population is HIV-infected, D'Agostino related.

While 70 percent of the world's HIV/AIDS cases are in Africa, Sen. Frist said, other parts of the world are fast catching up.

"India, with over 4 million cases, is on the edge of an explosive epidemic. China is estimated to have 10 million infected persons. The Caribbean sadly boasts the highest rate of infection of any region in the world.

"Eastern Europe and Russia report the fastest growth of AIDS cases."

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Frist, who also is ranking member of the Senate's subcommittee on public health, went on to say: "Ninety percent of those infected do not know they have the disease."

Franklin Graham said, "We need a new army to go around the world to fight this battle, with the Church of Jesus Christ in the leadership."

He suggested the church might have been hesitant in assuming this role because of the stigma attached to AIDS. "We as the church have been too quick to pass judgment on this disease. Jesus said, 'Judge not lest ye be judged.'"

The Rev. D'Agostino concurred: "'Vengeance is mine,' says God. Priests are not called to judge but to hear confession and pronounce Christ's forgiveness in his place."

Said Graham, "We should be leading, not following or watching this fight. Let's stop waiting for the government or the medical and scientific industry to solve this problem. Let's put this issue at the top of our agendas as individuals, churches, denominations, and Christian organizations."

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