WASHINGTON -- Evangelist Franklin Graham says evangelical Christianshave not done enough to help people with HIV/AIDS, adding it is time forthem to drop any social and religious stigmas they have attached to thedisease and contribute more time and money to helping infected people.

"Many people have seen this as a homosexual problem, or it's anintravenous drug users' problem, or it's a prostitutes' problem. Itaffects all of us. Forty million people are infected," Graham said. "Weneed a new army of men and women who are prepared to go around the worldto help fight this battle."

Graham convened a three-day "Prescription for Hope" summit here thatwas part Christian theology lesson, part HIV\AIDS education program andpart pep rally aimed at getting evangelicals more involved in caring forpeople with HIV\AIDS.

About 900 people from 87 different countries attended the conference,with African AIDS workers mingling with Canadian clergy in a sprawlingdowntown hotel. Workshop topics ranged from African marital relations tothe church's responsibility for helping patients with a disease someChristians see as punishment for immoral "lifestyle choices."

Graham, along with nearly every other speaker at the conference,consistently repeated the conference's overarching message -- thatChristians should think less about how someone got infected and moreabout how they can help.

Graham admitted that involving evangelicals will be an uphillbattle. A recent survey poll by the Barna Research Group found that only3 percent of evangelical Christians in the United States said they planto help with HIV\AIDS.

Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, pointed to Roy and AvisRideout as examples of Christian compassion in action. The coupleoperates Agape Home For Babies and Children with HIV/AIDS in Thailand.They attended the conference with their HIV-positive adopted Thaidaughter, Nikki.

The Rideouts have taken in 146 infected children since opening AgapeHome. Infected children who later become immune to the disease are putup for adoption, and those who remain HIV positive and develop AIDScannot be adopted and stay at Agape Home until they die. So far 40children have been adopted and 40 have died.

"We want to give a child who is dying with AIDS identity, quality oflife, let them die as well as anyone else," Avis Rideout said. "Whycan't they have the same right to die in the same way with love anddignity?"

Graham called the conference a success because it was the first timeevangelical Christians had held such a meeting in the United States. Buta more concrete measure of success could be whether Graham's charitableorganization, Samaritan's Purse, follows through on a promise Grahammade to help build a "City of Hope" in Kenya.

The project, envisioned by Catholic priest and AIDS worker AngeloD'Agostino, plans to build villages in Africa to house orphans and theelderly affected by AIDS.

D'Agostino said AIDS is eliminating Kenya's "middle generation" ofparents, leaving countless orphaned children and many helpless elderlywho watch as their children, and their adult caretakers, die off.

As soon as D'Agostino finished explaining his vision that the900-person villages will one day dot the continent, Graham stepped tothe podium and unexpectedly endorsed the plan, also promising thatSamaritan's Purse would help build the first "City Of Hope."

"That is a tremendous idea and why not do it?" Graham said. "Thiscould be done as a model village which could be replicated in otherAfrican countries," he said. D'Agostino said the impromptu announcementwas "the surprise of my life."

Ken Isaacs, director of international projects for Samaritan'sPurse, could not commit to an exact financial contribution, but said theorganization will likely help D'Agostino with administrative support andproject management. "Just looking at some quick numbers, I would say itis going to be $700,000 to a million dollars," Isaacs said.

Much of the conference's workshops centered on Africa. The diseasehas devastated that continent; according to statistics from the WorldHealth Organization, 28.1 million African adults and children are eitherHIV-positive or have full blown AIDS, compared to about 940,000 in NorthAmerica.

In a speech Wednesday (Feb. 20), Ugandan First Lady Janet KataahaMusveni compared the AIDS epidemic to Old Testament disasters, but saidher country is faring better than other African countries because ofgovernment education programs and Christian faith-based organizationssuch as the Uganda Youth Forum.

"We hold up role models for them, we discuss perplexing issues abouttheir newly discovered sexuality and about the dangers of the adultworld," she said.

Uganda has been singled out as a model African nation when it comesto combating the spread of HIV/AIDS. Between 1995 and 2000, the HIVinfection rate dropped from 18.5 percent to 6.1 percent.

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