Arab religious leaders in Egypt to combat HIV/AIDS


AIDS ribbonCAIRO (AFP) - Over 300 religious leaders from 20 Arab countries have gathered in Cairo to discuss means of raising awareness in their communities of the spread of the HIV/AIDS.

"It is time to stop what happens in some Arab countries like expelling (HIV positive persons) from their community," Arab League Assistant Secretary General Nancy Bakir said at the opening of the three-day forum.

It is time to get rid of the fictitious ideas of AIDS and its spread," she said Monday.

Partcipants explained that taboo which long surrounded the sexually-transmitted disease in the region had hampered early efforts to tackle the epidemic.

"The Arab states region has one of the faster growing HIV infection rates in the world," the United Nations Development Programme said in a statement.

According to the UNDP, there are currently 720,000 people living with HIV in the Arab region, with up to 210,000 infected adults and children in 2006 alone. A new infection occurs every 10 minutes.

"I had no idea we had AIDS in Egypt," said Mohammed Taha Diab Allam, a Muslim preacher from the northern Egyptian province of Kafr el-Sheikh who attended the forum.

"It is going to take a lot of work to change people's mentality about the virus," said Father Abram Ramzy, a Coptic priest who came from Sudan.

"It won't just take a year or two, but hopefully if we bring the subject up, it will encourage people (infected with the virus) to come forward, and we can start tackling the problem properly," he told AFP.

The UNDP considers the Arab region to be one of low prevalence, compared to other countries in the African continent, but warns that if current trends continue, the region will face generalized epidemics by 2015.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa as well as the Grand Imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar Mosque Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi are to address the forum on Tuesday. The first such gathering took place in Cairo in 2004.