Catholics & Communists cooperate to fight AIDS

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A regular visitor tells Sister Wang Aixia he doesn't know how long he has.

"I can't sleep and I lost a lot of weight," says the 29-year-old in a stylish blue jacket, lowering his eyes.

Nuns and college student volunteers at the Jinde Charities promote AIDS prevention in front of the Hebei Museum in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province, on December 1 last year.

Nuns and college student volunteers at the Jinde Charities promote AIDS prevention in front of the Hebei Museum in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province, on December 1 last year. 

She notes down his problems and smiles.

"Relax," the Catholic nun says, gently patting his shoulder. "Everyone goes through the process.

"The crucial thing is to take the drugs on time and use condoms. Don't lose confidence. Look over there - go ask that guy!"

The man nods slightly reluctantly and goes to see 52-year-old Ji Feng, a veteran patient and leader of the Red Ribbon volunteer group.

Infected in 2000, Ji joined the capital's first officially registered non-governmental organization (NGO) devoted to comprehensive AIDS care in 2002.

The Beijing Home of Red Ribbon in Ditan Hospital is dedicated to AIDS prevention and peer education among gay men.

Ji set up an online group with 230 members last year and organizes weekend activities to unite those who appear "condemned to hell."

"It's not the end of the world," says the tall, skinny man. "You see, most of us still have hope."

The two nuns' most striking quality is their absence of prejudice, Ji says.

"You can't see any worldly judgment in their eyes … It's really moving.

"They tend to enlighten me with the realization that everyone is equal in this room and everyone has the right to pursue his own happiness."

A patient at Ditan for 10 days, AIDS patient Meng Lin will never forget Spring Festival Eve 1996.

That was the day his parents kicked him out of his home after he had tested HIV positive in 1995.

A Catholic for 19 years, Meng struggles to find a compromise solution to his sexual orientation and religious devotion.

"I was haunted by the idea my faith won't wash away my sins… it never would," he says.

The two Wangs changed him.

"Their love was not expressed in words, but delivered in tiny details such as clinical guidance, casual chatting and simply, company," says Meng, coordinator of the Beijing-based China Alliance of People Living with HIV/AIDS.

"Both make you feel respected and treat you as an individual. They told me that as long as I tried my best, no one can ever judge me, except God."

She is treading on sensitive ground, acknowledges Sister Wang Xia.

"Of course Catholicism opposes homosexuality and contraception," Wang says, "but our ultimate task is to save lives rather than being restricted to dogma."

China has an estimated 6,000 nuns among its estimated 5.6 million official Catholics, according to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

The nuns pray for the HIV/AIDS sufferers every evening in an empty dormitory with two metal bunk beds, desks and wardrobes. They moved in here two years ago from a toilet-less rented room.

They volunteer nine hours every weekday. The hospital sometimes subsidizes their basic living costs, averaging no more than 500 yuan a month, but by no means a regular or reliable stipend.

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