WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic and other faith-based workers defended their efforts against the worldwide AIDS pandemic in a meeting at the White House after a United Nations official cautioned that any restrictions in services based on religious belief could result in reduced support from funders.

The workers said during the July 24 meeting that their work is guided by religious principles and involves addressing the social needs of individuals battling the disease.

Their comments came after Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, deputy executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, told more than 100 participants that AIDS-related organizations face “crippling financial challenges” because funders will look elsewhere if it is perceived that the full realm of treatment is not being offered to people with HIV or AIDS.

“If (funders) perceive that dogma holds back our work, they’ll find other places to put their funds,” Albrectsen told the workers, most of who were in Washington for the XIX International AIDS Conference, which concludes July 27. “Some faith-based organizations’ spokespeople have appeared to deny the clear evidence of good research and even basic science in regards to HIV and AIDS.

“A restrictive approach to condom promotion and distribution, a reluctance to work with men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients or drug users is unlikely to evoke sympathy among precisely those who choose to spend their meager resources on the fight against HIV and AIDS,” Albrectsen said to the gathering of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu participants.

Albrectsen also commended the faith-based organizations, saying their work “can be decisive in extending the mantle of care and cover to the most vulnerable.”

“You lead people toward the light,” she said. “You raise your voice against prejudice and discrimination and you educate the uniformed. But most importantly you welcome and you reassure.”

Albrectsen noted that in many countries, faith-based groups deliver 30 percent of basic health care, and as much as 70 percent of care in humanitarian settings.

“You work in and with communities that governments can’t reach. More than 16,000 health centers on the African continent are operated by Catholic organizations alone. Here in the U.S., faith-inspired institutions and religious leaders play a pivotal role in treatment, care, and support of people living with HIV and AIDS,” she said.

Finola Finnan, who chairs the Catholic HIV/AIDS Network, said in prepared comments that many agencies already were experiencing funding cuts while being told to do more with less. In practice, she said, that meant “doing less with less.”

“Catholic agencies understood comprehensive approaches and combination strategies before they had been coined by UNAIDS, because we believe in integral human development. We understand the need to respond to the spiritual and pastoral needs of individuals, families and communities, as well as to their social and economic needs,” said Finnan, head of the HIV and gender equality program of Trocaire, the Irish Catholic bishops’ aid agency.

Finnan said Catholic work on AIDS was “about journeying with people and serving them, understanding that biomedical solutions will only work if we also address the reasons that people’s living conditions fall well below the minimum for an individual to live a life of dignity.”

Several religious leaders asked the administration to change its policies in other areas that affect HIV and AIDS work.

Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga, past chairwoman of the Bolivian Network of People Living with HIV, warned that U.S. trade policies endangered advances in the fight against AIDS.

“If the U.S. signs a free trade agreement with India that includes medications, we are done,” she said.

Ross noted that most international AIDS groups purchase antiretroviral drugs from generic manufacturers in India except for programs funded by the U.S. government’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which buys name brand drugs. She said losing access to generic drugs would jeopardize efforts to save lives and reduce new infections.

“The whole developing world would be left to die because of the price of drugs,” Ross said.

The religious leaders also heard a pitch for help.

Gayle Smith, senior director for development and democracy at the National Security Council, noted that the U.S. government provides more than half the funding for HIV and AIDS work around the world. While poor countries had increased their funding of domestic programs, governments of other wealthy countries had not done their part, she said.

“Please urge other countries to step up to the plate,” Smith said.