Faith leaders and notable scientists assembled at an international conference on AIDS are coming together to mourn several scientists and researchers who died in the Malaysian Airlines jetliner that was shot down over Ukraine.
The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, representing the United Church of Christ, says an overwhelming sense of grief has gripped the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Six delegates traveling to the gathering died in route. But the conference, which begins on Sunday, will proceed as scheduled, albeit with heavy hearts.
"There is a somber spirit over those gathered here," said Schuenemeyer, the UCC’s executive for health and wholeness advocacy. "I had the privilege of moderating the Opening Plenary of the Interfaith Preconference which included a moment of silence in memoriam."
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crashed on Thursday, July 17, after it was shot down over Ukraine with 298 people aboard. The Associated Press reported that American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile brought the aircraft down.
It’s believed that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are responsible. "We know [Russian separatists] have received steady support from Russia, which includes heavy weapons and training ... and includes anti-aircraft weapons," said President Barack Obama, who confirmed that at least one American was aboard the flight.
The official number of leading scientists working on AIDS research who were on MH17 has yet to be confirmed, but it is believed to be a "substantial number," according to Australian officials.
"This is a community that has experience with devastating loss," Schuenemeyer said. "It is difficult, but we will survive and realize the goal of what brought us to Melbourne in the first place — ending the HIV epidemic."
The International AIDS Conference brings together international leaders working on HIV-AIDS research, as well as policy makers and persons living with HIV-AIDS, to assess the state of recent scientific developments and chart a course forward to end the epidemic. The event takes place every two years.
The 2014 conference will shed light on new scientific knowledge and offer opportunities to discuss issues around the global response to HIV-AIDS.
The International AIDS Society issued a statement over the news that its colleagues perished in the crash.
"At this incredibly sad and sensitive time, the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost to this tragedy," the group said.