Religious leaders from across Lebanon met in Beirut for a three-day conference designed to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, The Daily Star reports. The event included interactive workshops to raise HIV/AIDS awareness and reduce stigma toward people living with the virus.

According to Mirna Sabbagh of the United Nation Development Program (UNDP), which sponsored the event, recent data show 1,058 reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Lebanon in 2007 and 600,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Arab countries overall as of 2006.  

“Until now, the Arab world had not addressed the issues of HIV/AIDS with enough energy, because people were too scared or not sufficiently informed to discuss the disease,” said Martha Ruedas of UNDP. So far, 700 religious leaders have been trained in HIV/AIDS awareness through the Religious Leaders Initiative, one of several regional initiatives run by UNDP

Ruedas and other conference participants emphasized that it’s important for religious leaders to take an active role at a grassroots level. “You can access all communities once a week, every week, across Lebanon,” she told the participants. “You work on a daily basis with community-based organizations, and I respectfully tell you that it is you who are well-placed to lead.”