"This is the biggest epidemic to hit this world since the blackplague during the Middle Ages," said Calver, who has personally visitedEthiopia, Kenya and Sudan to work on HIV/AIDS prevention programs inthose countries. "We've got to do something, and we've got to do it now.

The most recent figures released by the United Nations Program onHIV/AIDS sketches a dismal portrait of the continent's future. Of the 35million people worldwide infected with the HIV virus, an estimated 60percent--24.5 million--live in Africa.

Opportunity for hope is slim. The expensive drugs available to AIDSand HIV patients living in wealthy countries are an economicimpossibility for people in developing countries. In May five majorpharmaceutical companies, including Glaxo Wellcome and Bristol-MeyersSquibb, offered a glimmer of hope by offering to offer to reduce thecost of some drug treatments for infected people living in developingcountries.

But health officials point out that many African countries stillhave no health care system able to distribute the medicine or monitorpatients to ensure the medicines are effective.

In South Africa, where about 20 percent of the people are infectedwith the virus, the government has refused to cover the cost oflife-saving drugs that could prevent mothers from passing the HIV virusto their children. Some say South African president Thabo Mbeki himselfis a stumbling block to stopping the spread of AIDS.

Mbeki has publicly questioned the link between the HIV virus andAIDS. His speech at the Durban conference's opening ceremonies,criticized by many for not going far enough to acknowledge a linkbetween the HIV virus and AIDS, prompted hundreds of conferenceparticipants to walk out.

For years the majority of churches in Africa remained on thesidelines as the AIDS epidemic mushroomed, hesitant to tackle a subjectthat required frank talk about human sexuality and other subjects longconsidered taboo in the religious community, said Dortzbach.

"For a long time the church has not wanted to address effectivelyissues like sex or male/female roles, so there's also a lot of stigmasurrounding this issue that the church has helped create that we need tocome to grips with," she said. "I also think churches sometimes havechosen not to be aware of AIDS--there's been sort of a self-righteousattitude that this can't be in our church, and that's true in the UnitedStates as well. But now the epidemic has grown so much the church isfinally realizing its something we can't ignore."

Calver agreed.

"Church leaders in Africa have been coming to a growing recognitionof the AIDS dilemma, and now they're waking up to the problem," he said."Now they desperately need the resources to fight it."

That's where faith-based relief organizations step in to help, saidDortzbach.

"Our work is set out for us, but the church is the institution thatwill be there for the long haul," said Dortzbach

. "The church is God'sinstrument in a crisis like this, we have no choice but to help."