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International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) was established in 1992 as the official international humanitarian arm of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA).

Since 1960, SCOBA has brought together Orthodox religious leaders from Albanian, Greek, Antiochian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Russian Orthodox churches in the U.S. and Canada. IOCC is one of six charity and outreach agencies supported by SCOBA.

Since its inception, IOCC has administered more than $200 million. The organization has received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

In 2004, contributions and grants to IOCC totaled almost $15.9 million, with 47 percent from government sources. In 2003, government grants represented a bigger chunk of the total contributions: 68 percent of $16.1 million.

Over the past 14 years, most IOCC programs have addressed disaster and emergency relief, shelter construction and repair, and refugee return and assistance in 30 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The countries, most with a strong Orthodox Church presence, include Albania, Greece, Romania, Georgia, Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Russia.

A newcomer to the AIDS battle

IOCC’s first HIV/AIDS program was launched in Ethiopia in January 2004 after the organization received a $4.6 million, three-year grant from the U.S. government. Its preexisting partnership there with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), which has more than 40 million followers and 35,000 churches and monasteries, gave IOCC access to the most remote parts of the country.

IOCC and the Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission (DICAC), the development arm of the EOC, have been partners since 2001. Originally, the joint venture was established to implement agricultural programs with funding from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Now, with an award from PEPFAR, the Bush administration’s $15 billion President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, IOCC-DICAC works in three areas: palliative care; Orphans and Vulnerable Children programs; and “Abstinence” and “Be Faithful” prevention activities (the “A” and “B” of the so-called ABC approach).

Though IOCC is new to the battle against HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, its faith-based ally is more familiar with the country and the disease. “Our major partner, EOC-DICAC, has been implementing humanitarian programs in Ethiopia since 1972,” said spokeswoman Amal Morcos. “They have been on the frontline of fighting the spread of AIDS in Ethiopia from the outset of the epidemic.”

AB without C

The “Abstinence” and “Be Faithful,” or AB, strategy is familiar to the Orthodox Church’s doctrine, which endorses abstaining from sex until marriage and fidelity thereafter.

So far, more than 40,000 of the half-million clergymen from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have been trained with U.S. government funding to preach about abstinence and fidelity. Consistent with their beliefs, they do not comment on condoms (correct and consist Condom use is the “C” in the ABC approach) during AB activities. But IOCC says the clergymen have been instructed to refer those with questions about condoms to a nongovernmental organization or any other group that will speak about them.

“The church’s doctrine is not to promote condoms,” said Ken Baker, program manager of IOCC in Ethiopia. “The Orthodox Church has 2,000 years of history, and the condom is something they do not approve.”

The AB message is also targeted to youth in the church’s Sunday schools, where in 2005 IOCC-DICAC reached half a million adolescents. More than 3,000 peer educators deliver the AB message.

But it is when the AB message comes from the clergy, a venerated and powerful group in Ethiopia, that it becomes particularly potent. Baker, a Canadian native, said, “The Ethiopian people, more than any other people I have ever met, revered the church, revered their patriarch, and revered their clergy and listen to them. … They don’t question the church.”

On site, U.S. government officials confirmed Baker’s notions. “This is a strong faith-based community,” said Melissa Jones, a USAID official in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. She added that Patriarch Abune Paulos “is a huge champion of HIV/AIDS messages.”

In 2004, IOCC-DICAC worked to provide medical, financial and spiritual support for people living with HIV and AIDS. A year later, the approach was expanded to include teaching income-generating activities as a way to improve the welfare of HIV-affected households.

Through an income-generating program, Zufane Negash, 24, started her own business after testing positive for HIV. She used to waitress in bars and said she resorted to having sex with men to make enough money. Now, with economic support from the Orthodox Church, she and two other women own a grocery store in Asela, a town about 75 miles southeast of Addis Ababa.

“We sell everything, rice and tea and tomatoes, and even condoms,” said Negash. “I not only sell them, but I teach people how to use them.”

The Orthodox Church does not oppose her condom sales, but it encourages her to tell people to abstain and be faithful.

“Only when it’s a very difficult situation we tell them [store customers] to use condoms,” Negash said.

IOCC-DICAC recently reported that it reached 6.8 million people in Ethiopia between October 2005 and September 2006 with AIDS prevention messages. In addition, IOCC says that it has assisted 14,000 individuals under the Orphans and Vulnerable Children care and support program and that 8,000 people have benefited under another care and support program for the People Living with HIV/AIDS initiative.

The organization’s fight against HIV/AIDS has also reached Eastern Europe. In April 2005, IOCC got $2 million from USAID for a three-year project in Romania where it aligned its efforts with the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Romanian Ministry of Education to spread a faith-based message of AIDS prevention and nondiscrimination.

Marina Walker Guevara contributed to this story.

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