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

"Many people have seen this as a homosexual problem, or it's an intravenous drug users' problem, or it's a prostitutes' problem. It affects all of us. Forty million people are infected," Graham said. "We need a new army of men and women who are prepared to go around the world to help fight this battle."

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

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

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

Graham admitted that involving evangelicals will be an uphill battle. A recent survey poll by the Barna Research Group found that only 3 percent of evangelical Christians in the United States said they plan to help with HIV\AIDS.

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

The Rideouts have taken in 146 infected children since opening Agape Home. Infected children who later become immune to the disease are put up for adoption, and those who remain HIV positive and develop AIDS cannot be adopted and stay at Agape Home until they die. So far 40 children have been adopted and 40 have died.

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

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

The project, envisioned by Catholic priest and AIDS worker Angelo D'Agostino, plans to build villages in Africa to house orphans and the elderly affected by AIDS.

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

As soon as D'Agostino finished explaining his vision that the 900-person villages will one day dot the continent, Graham stepped to the podium and unexpectedly endorsed the plan, also promising that Samaritan's Purse would help build the first "City Of Hope."

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

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

Much of the conference's workshops centered on Africa. The disease has devastated that continent; according to statistics from the World Health Organization, 28.1 million African adults and children are either HIV-positive or have full blown AIDS, compared to about 940,000 in North America.

In a speech Wednesday (Feb. 20), Ugandan First Lady Janet Kataaha Musveni compared the AIDS epidemic to Old Testament disasters, but said her country is faring better than other African countries because of government education programs and Christian faith-based organizations such as the Uganda Youth Forum.

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

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

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