It’s a rare place of worship where Muslims and Baha’is both congregate, and where prayer rugs share space with a silver cross, religious pamphlets on healing in Hebrew, and a bright scarlet AIDS bow. But on Wednesday afternoon, that was the scene at the Interfaith Prayer Room of the AIDS 2012 conference.
“This room is designed for Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Baha’is — for anyone who needs to find a place for quiet and prayer, and counseling, if necessary,” said Imam Dr. Abdul-Malik Ali, who just finished leading prayers beside a broad banner reading “Faith in Action — End Stigma Now.”
A sign in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic welcomed worshippers to the carpeted prayer room. Double doors cut the clamor of thousands of convention-goers to a murmur, so that inside, even the faintest clicking of the ventilation system was audible. To complete the contrast with the outside’s roar and bustle, the air was cool and the lights were gently dimmed.
Dr. Ali hand-delivered the room’s prayer rugs, traveling from Trenton, N.J., to Washington, D.C., for the July 22-27 conference, which gathers 20,000 international participants working on all aspects of the HIV response. A July 20-21 Interfaith Preconference on HIV convened more than 400 faith-based people and groups, setting the stage for the main event.
“I’m on the local host committee for the Interfaith Prayer Room, and I was selected for that as a result of giving the Islamic invocation at the UN prayer breakfast for AIDS. I felt it was necessary because we Muslims, just like everybody else, are experiencing problems with HIV/AIDS,” said the imam, whose Trenton mosque is the Masjidut-Taqwa (Place of Learning How to Appreciate God).
“We’ve had quite a flow of Muslims coming through here, as well as Baha’is and Protestant Christians; the rabbi has been here twice this week, and they’ve had Mass in the mornings at 8 a.m.,” Ali said. “People have expressed thankfulness for this place, where they can come and perform their prayers.”
Asked why it was important for him to be at this international conference, the imam said: “The disease has motivated people to come here. The stigma is there to begin with, with HIV’s association with homosexuality – many people have to work through that part of it. Add to that HIV and full-blown AIDS, and there’s a double stigma for those people.
“Many Islamic countries don’t even want to acknowledge they have a problem,” Ali said. “Many of the people I’ve talked to here at AIDS 2012 are not from agencies – they’re people living with HIV, or they know people living with HIV, and they’re trying to wake up their countries.
“Here in America, I have a difficult time getting imams to acknowledge and address [HIV and AIDS], and I tell them we have to — people are suffering, and we need to wake up and realize these things are happening, and it’s real. “
Sitting not far from the Muslim worshippers was the Interfaith Prayer Room’s chaplain for the Baha’i faith, Edith Lengwe. She said her experience as chaplain has made her understand that “each of us has a God who sustains our lives on a daily basis – we draw comfort from our God, because regardless of the situation, you need to find time to connect to your God.”
“Baha’is are human beings as well, and we are at risk of contracting HIV,” said Lengwe, who is also national coordinator of the Zambia Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS (ZANERELA +).
“Our strategy is to reach out on safer practices such as condom protection, ways to prevent transmission from mother to child, and safe blood transfusions. But above all we are about the need to be spiritually empowered,” she said. “… For Bahai’s as a religion, we need to reach out more to people with the correct information. It’s through our devotions that people can have free access to information – and if we are giving out information on a Godly mission, we should give out HIV/AIDS information as well.”
Lengwe said that in her experience, the Interfaith Prayer Room fills an important need.
“There are people who come just to lie on the carpet for a while, others come to meditate and just be, and we give them that time that they wanted,” she said.
Ali said the interfaith aspect of running the prayer room has gone well.
“Everybody’s been here, we’ve worked together, we sat down and figured how to arrange the room, the usage of it, and we can change the configuration depending on what’s going on,” he said.
“No community, I don’t care what race you are, or what religion you are, is void of this problem,” added the imam. “Only everybody working together can solve HIV/AIDS.”
Jon Pattee is the Assistant Director for Media Relations for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service