EUROPE: 'Faith and health go together,' Tutu tells U.N. in Geneva

May 21, 2008

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a man known for speaking out about injustices from whatever side they come, and for his charismatic preaching peppered with heart-wrenching anecdotes. However, when he visited the United Nations in Geneva on May 20, he stressed the link between "faith and health."


Before his U.N. appearance, the former leader of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa went to the World Council of Churches and spoke to its staff. During his address, the archbishop paid tribute to this grouping of 550 million Christians in 347 churches for taking a "moral and courageous" stand in supporting liberation movements that fought against South Africa's rulers during the apartheid era.


"I want you to know that in many ways we would not be free in South Africa today had it not been for the steadfast support we got from the World Council of Churches. You stood by what you believed was true," Tutu told cheering staff members as well as school students from France, who had gathered at the Geneva-based WCC.


Tutu, who worked for the WCC back in the 1960s, noted that many Western governments had reviled the WCC for its support of African liberation movements that were accused then of being terrorists.


Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 at a time when black South Africans were rising up in revolt against his country's apartheid racist system of white domination, and he was a vociferous opponent of the regime. Still, he also famously intervened to stop militants who were trying to kill a local member of a black community by setting fire to a gasoline-soaked tire and placing it around his neck, because he was suspected of being an informer.


The Nobel peace laureate said that people who were suffering under tyranny these days were in Zimbabwe, Burma and Tibet. The archbishop has condemned the totalitarian actions of the government of Zimbabwe led by President Robert Mugabe, and did so long before other Church leaders dared to. He also fights his government for what he has labelled as their heartless policies to those living with HIV and AIDS.


After his WCC visit and down at the Palais des Nations, the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, Tutu held up a T-shirt proclaiming, "HIV Positive Kids Need Treatment." Here, in a speech to the 61st World Health Assembly, the archbishop highlighted what he said was the need to address the challenges faced in relation to HIV positive children. "Children are dying of easily preventable diseases," he stated.


Around the world, almost 800 children die of AIDS-related illnesses every day. According to latest figures from UNAIDS, approximately 2.1 million children under 15 are living with HIV; nearly 90 percent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.


"It is a Godly coincidence that nearby the World Council of Churches is also celebrating its 60th anniversary," Tutu, who is 76, told his U.N. hearers. "Together, the WHO and WCC share a common mission to the world, protecting and restoring body, mind, and spirit.


The archbishop added that it was important that 2008 also marked the 40th anniversary of the Christian Medical Commission, whose values and experience in primary health care shaped the 1974 WHO Guidelines for Primary Health Care, which were reaffirmed at Alma Ata (the then capital of Kazakhstan) in 1978.


"You see, we -- faith and health -- have been together a very long time. Health is not only freedom from suffering and illness but, according to your Constitution, 'Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.' These words enshrine the fundamental reason you are here, and suggest something of what we share in our commitment to the world together," asserted Tutu.


He added, "Perhaps it would be good for us to include the recognition that there is an intrinsic relationship between God and humankind, which can be acknowledged as 'spiritual well being'? Perhaps one day this notion of well being can be included in the WHO definition of health?"

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