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Church denies washing hands of Aids project

De Haller says the church is failing Aids sufferers Keystone

The Protestant Church of Geneva has strongly denied that it is to blame for the impending closure of a pioneering project for people with HIV and Aids.

The church has been accused of “turning its back” on sufferers following its decision to scrap the post of a full-time pastor at the city’s Aids Mission.

The independent project, which is run from an office in the parish of Eaux-Vives, has helped hundreds of people with HIV and Aids since it was launched 15 years ago.

But faced with falling revenue, the church says it can no longer afford to have a pastor working full-time at the mission.

As a result the SFr130,000 ($103,000) a year post currently held by the project’s founder, pastor Dominique Roulin, will go and the mission will close its doors on September 1.

Its governing body declined the offer of a hospital chaplain on a part-time basis, saying it was not prepared to run the project “with insufficient means”.

The decision to cut the post has provoked a storm of protest and led to letters in the local press both attacking and defending the church.

Doctor Jacques de Haller, the project’s president and head of the Swiss Medical Association, has openly criticised the move as a “stupid decision”.

“We see 160 people a month, which means a lot of people need this service,” he told swissinfo.

“They will now either have to get by on their own or go to other places which won’t be as good as the mission for these kind of situations. The church is turning its back on Aids patients.”

Bridging the gap

De Haller said Roulin was one of the first people to bridge the gap between the church and Aids sufferers at a time when life expectancy was short.

Her role at the mission was to accompany patients during their final months or years and help them to find some sense of meaning in their lives.

“They were probably very frightening for normal church people. They had lost weight and sometimes even lost their minds. It was really an ugly death and I guess people in the parishes did not really know what to do,” he said.

“Dominique Roulin pushed the boundaries of the church further and brought it closer to people who did not think they had any place in it or in normal church activities.”

De Haller added that even though tritherapy treatment had extended the lives of sufferers, the work of the ministry was as pertinent today as it was when the project was founded in 1991.

He said Aids remained a “stigmatising illness” and sufferers continued to face a mixture of social and spiritual problems.

Roulin, who is having to tread a fine diplomatic line since she will be employed by the church in another capacity, limited herself to saying that she was “sad and disappointed” that her work was coming to an end.

“It has not been easy to tell people that we will no longer be here for them. Many of them cannot understand why this is happening,” she said.


Renaud Gautier, a local politician and president of the Geneva Aids Group, told Le Temps newspaper that the decision could backfire on the church, with parishioners cutting contributions in protest.

According to Gautier, “petty jealousies” were partly to blame for the axing of Roulin’s post.

The Protestant Church of Geneva has not taken the criticism lying down, even though it admits it has been slow to explain its position.

Its president Georges Bolay said many people were ignoring the fact that the church was having to make cutbacks right across the board. It has already let five pastors go and six others are taking early retirement because of falling church contributions.

“The choices we make are often a consequence of the actions of those who support us. Sadly, that’s the reality,” he said.

Bolay pointed out that Roulin’s appointment had always been on a temporary basis and while the church had elected not to renew the post, the decision to close the mission had been taken by the project’s governing body.

He insisted that the needs of Aids and HIV patients could have been met by a hospital chaplain.

“It is absolutely false – even scandalous – to say that the Protestant Church is not interested in people with Aids.”

“The church has always looked out for this part of the population, as we have proved over the past 15 years.”

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

The Aids Mission was set up in Geneva in 1991.
160 people with HIV and Aids visit the project every month.
The Protestant Church of Geneva contributes SFr130,000 a year in the form of a full-time pastor.
Canton Geneva provides a further SFr70,000.

Pastor Dominique Roulin is due to stop work at the mission at the end of the month and will not be replaced because the Protestant Church of Geneva says it can no longer afford a full-time pastor for the project.

The independently run Aids Mission says the decision means it will have to close on September 1.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR