Vol. 14, No. 1
Christian Responses to the Aids Crisis in Russia
Michael Cherenkov and David Johnson
HIV/AIDS in Russia is a pestilence with social and spiritual consequences that are so alarming they are often ignored. If the developing HIV/AIDS epidemic is not checked, a catastrophe awaits Russia. Today, every second man in Russia dies having never reached retirement age; the average male life expectancy is 58 years. The proportion of the population of working age is constantly decreasing. If the millions potentially infected with AIDS are added to these data, it is possible to understand the conclusion of expert Michael Specter that this disease threatens to transform Russia into a Third World country (“The Devastation,” The New Yorker 80 [October 2004], 58-69).
In Russia, the initial growth of the epidemic occurred primarily through the injection of drugs. Up to three million Russians inject drugs, with half using unsterilized needles. The main means of transmission now, however, is through sexual relations. By this means HIV/AIDS has begun to endanger a broader portion of the population, threatening society as a whole. It is enough to say that for the past several years the number of infected pregnant women has increased sharply. More and more sick children are being born, the most innocent and defenseless victims of the epidemic.
Despite its frightening tempo of development, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Russia is still in its early stages. This means that catastrophic consequences can be averted, pandemic can be avoided, and Russian society can be saved.
To date, the state has side-stepped participation in the fight against the epidemic. Recent promises to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for prevention programs remain unfulfilled. Just as in the past, Russia lacks an AIDS policy and it lacks concrete, funded programs.
Church Responses to AIDS
In July 1999 the Russian Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists signed an “Inter-confessional Agreement Concerning Social Mission.” Another positive development has been the preparation of the document “The Plan of the Russian Orthodox Church for HIV/AIDS.” One of its worthy goals is to call Christians to active participation in the fight against the spread of the HIV infection. However, this plan focuses not so much on the necessity of individual involvement, arson the Russian Orthodox institutional position as regards the threat of AIDS: “The church considers its first debt to be the spiritual-moral evaluation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.” By the concept “the loss of moral compass and orientation, “the Russian Orthodox Church means that its position of power in society is in jeopardy. And so, it is certainly noticeable that the moral emptiness and spiritual loss of the current generation is directly linked to the loss of Christian orientation.
Today it has become evident that neither the state, social organizations, nor religious confessions can independently
organize the fight against the AIDS epidemic. Consolidation of strengths and effective partnerships are needed. The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and the Christian organization For Russia have put forward such an initiative. On 18-20 April 2005 they sponsored an international conference in Moscow on “State, Society, and Religious Organizations in the Solution to HIV/AIDS –Prospects for Cooperation.” At this meeting For Russia presented a plan “Concerning Society’s Position in Relation to HIV/AIDS” and also produced a document addressing the need to join forces in the fight against AIDS. Both of these evangelical documents, which provide a foundation for Protestant social doctrine, also call for collaboration with the Russian Orthodox Church in the fight against the proliferation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. One conference organizer, Vladimir Samoilov, noted: “We are responsible for the enlightenment of society about HIV/AIDS and, also, for the spiritual-moral health of Russia.” On this point Roman Catholic Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz and Representative of the Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims Imam Xatib Allutinov are in full agreement with evangelical churches. However, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church at the conference refused to sign the declaration. Also disappointing is the fact that state officials responsible for fighting AIDS are no more than lukewarm about evangelical initiatives. Protestant efforts are seen as covers for evangelism and as mechanisms for strengthening the Protestant position in contemporary Russian society and politics.
Protestant churches, nevertheless, have participated actively in interconfessional discussions for the purpose of
uniting Christian confessions and organizations in the battle against AIDS. One concrete outcome of these discussions waste “Social Position of Protestant Churches of Russia, “produced in 2003. This document defines the general principles for participation by churches in the fight with the epidemic. Along with spiritual, practical, and rehabilitation support in overcoming AIDS, priority is given to preventative measures through family upbringing, education, and church instruction concerning a healthy and moral way of life. In addition to rehabilitation centers that work with the consequences of the disease, Christian organizations have begun to develop awareness and educational programs. Some of these organizations and their programs are listed below.
AIDS Programs Underway
• The Adventist Church and Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) have been supporting public HIV/ AIDS prevention education programs in Russia for more than ten years, focusing special attention on orphans and other vulnerable children (Helen Haden, Adventist News Network, 3 May 2005).
• The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS have supported the work of an Interdenominational Christian Organizational Committee working on the problem of HIV/AIDS in Russia. The committee includes representatives from the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Russian Joint Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria, the Union of Evangelical Pentecostal Christian Faith, Caritas of European Russia, Seventh-day Adventists, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Consulate of Muftis of Russia, the Central Muslim Spiritual Department, the Congress of Jewish Communities and Unions in Russia, and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia (“The International Conference,” 19 April 2005, www.undp.ru).
• The Russian Orthodox Church, a participant in the “Church Anti-AIDS Network,” is involved in training priests and nuns to provide spiritual support for those suffering from AIDS, the development and publication of materials supporting anti-AIDS programs, and prevention events for young people based on Christian spiritual principles(“Working Meeting of the Church Anti-AIDS Network, “Moscow Patriarch, 6 September 2005).
• Mira Med Institute, since 2002, has been creating HIV/AIDS educational materials for Russian orphanages and schools. One project, sponsored in conjunction with the Curriculum Committee of the Russian Ministry of Education and approved by the Russian Orthodox Church, will be implemented throughout the Russian public school system after a pilot program is tested in several Moscow area schools through 2007 (“HIV/AIDS Prevention Education,” Mira Med Institute, www.miramed.org, 2November 2005).
• ACET International (Aids Care Education and Training)has trained more than 200 HIV/AIDS educators who work in schools, churches, universities, youth centers, orphanages, hostels, counseling centers, telephone hotlines, advocacy programs, drug rehabilitation centers, and the army. To date this outreach extends to 60 cities in seven regions of the Russian Federation. ACET also has published books in the Russian language about AIDS and sexual health (ACET International, www.acetinternational.org/Russia.htm, 2 November 2005).
• OPORA/Prevention Partners International, through its Keys to Healthy Living curriculum, trains professionals to implement HIV/AIDS and substance abuse prevention programs in shelters and summer camps for street children, prisons, rehabilitation centers, and schools (Fall2005 Report, 20 September 2005).
• Russia Inland (Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists), in addition to sponsoring training for the ACET program “Teach the Teacher,” has developed two programs to promote a healthy way of life among children and adults to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS (Russia Inland,www.russiainland.org, 2 November 2005).
• The Youth Ministry Department of Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries/Association for Spiritual Renewal (PDRM/ASR) has successfully adopted the program “No Apologies,” for use in lectures and seminars and in informal discussions with young people about the consequences of pre-marital relations and the advantages of a healthy way of life. In 2004, PDRM/ASR started the project “Time to Live!,” which includes a series of educational events for children and teenagers, the organization of large-scale Christian concerts for young people, and an international film forum.
• Campus Crusade Youth on the Cross Roads is providing HIV/AIDS education programming to orphanages in the Moscow Region. In Spring 2006, Cross Roads began training Children’s Hope Chest to use its Christ-centered curriculum in Vladimir, Kostroma, and Ivanovo Region orphanages (Cliff Harder, Cross Roads News, October 2005).
• The Salvation Army is working with HIV/AIDS-infected persons in the central, northern, and southern parts of Russia (Risk Network, www.risknetwork.ru, 2 November2005).
• Brothers of Compassion has worked to help Russian orphanages for HIV/AIDS-infected children since 1998.(Risk Network, www.risknetwork.ru, 2 November 2005).
• Kid Save International, founded in 1999, works with HIV/AIDS-infected persons in the St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and Smolensk Regions of Russia (Risk Network, www.risknetwork.ru, 2 November 2005).
• Liberation, founded in 2001, works with HIV/AIDS infected persons in the Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Smolensk Regions of Russia and conducts drug and AIDS prevention programs in schools (Risk Network, www.risknetwork.ru, 2 November 2005).
Where Protestants Fit In
Despite the jealous reaction of the Russian Orthodox Church and the unwarranted suspicions of the federal government, Protestant churches and other Christian organizations are engaged in meaningful AIDS prevention work, joining forces with local government and social organizations and using their own network of Christian centers and the resources of their donors. Unfortunately, it seems that the state still has not defined its final position regarding cooperation with non-Orthodox Christian confessions and organizations working to address Russia’s AIDS crisis.