Russian HIV Effort

The Russian Orthodox Church launched a program this week to help stem the nation's snowballing HIV/AIDS epidemic. Government and U.N. experts praised the initiative, but others criticized the church, saying action was long overdue.

The prevention program calls for discouraging gay sex and sex with multiple partners, practices that the church regards as sinful and that may lead to infection.

In addition, priests and other church workers are instructed to treat people infected with HIV and AIDS "as any other person suffering from some serious illness" and are encouraged to promote tolerance. Also, church hotlines will help those with the virus.

The church said the program was not limited to Orthodox Christians.

Since the Soviet collapse, HIV/AIDS has been spreading at an alarming pace in Russia because of weak anti-drug and prevention programs. Experts say those infected exceed 1 million, three times the official total.

-- Associated Press

Miss England a Muslim

A teenage model born in Uzbekistan has become the first Muslim to be crowned Miss England.

Hammasa Kohistani, 18, is a student of design who was born in Tashkent. She has been living in Uxbridge, one of London's westernmost suburbs, since she was a young child. She speaks six languages, including Russian, Persian and French.

Three others among the 40 contestants also were Muslims: 21-year-old Dilay Topuzoglu, 21, a telemarketing operator; Sarah Mendly, 23, a sales representative; and Sonia Hassanien, 22, a beauty salon owner.

Kohistani, crowned last Saturday in Liverpool, is now a contender to become Miss World in a contest to be held in China in December.

Beauty pageants have been controversial for Muslims because some believe scantily clad contestants violate Islamic principles of modesty. Abdul Hamid, vice chairman of the Lancashire Board of Mosques, criticized Mendly for taking part.

"If she has chosen to take part in this contest, she immediately goes out of the circle of Islam," he said. "This competition is business-orientated and has no social significance whatsoever. It is not correct for her to take part."

-- Religion News Service

Unitarian Racism Inquiry

The Unitarian Universalist Association has established a review commission to investigate allegations of institutional racism after a series of conflicts at the church's annual meeting in Fort Worth.

Tensions flared at the five-day meeting in June when white delegates assumed that several nonwhite youths were hotel workers. White Unitarians asked several nonwhite delegates to carry their bags and park their cars, board secretary Paul Rickter wrote in an open letter of apology posted on the denomination's Web site in July.

The association's president, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, and moderator Gini Courter appointed a five-member commission to review events leading up to and during the General Assembly.

"The goal is to identify learnings about the structures of racism and ageism both within and outside our faith community which we must address in our journey toward wholeness," Courter and Sinkford wrote in a Sept. 1 e-mail.

The 200,000-member denomination, which draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including Christianity, Buddhism and naturist traditions, lists the pursuit of equality as one of its guiding principles. Although Unitarians have a reputation for tolerance and political liberalism, the June event sparked debate about the possibility of underlying racial tensions within the mostly white denomination.

-- Religion News Service

Schools Sue U-Calif.

Christian schools have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the University of California, accusing the public institution of refusing to accept courses from private schools with a conservative Christian perspective.

Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, Calif., and the Association of Christian Schools International, which represents 800 Christian schools in California and nearly 4,000 schools nationwide, charged that UC officials refused to certify courses that teach creationism and other beliefs.

The University of California system requires private school students to meet certain high school course requirements before they are eligible to apply to one of the nine undergraduate UC campuses.

Ravi Poorsina, a spokeswoman for the university, did not dispute the schools' right to teach their viewpoints. But she said the rejected courses primarily used religious texts and failed to meet UC standards for "knowledge generally accepted, for example, in the scientific or educational communities."

-- Religion News Service