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NEW YORK - A first-of-its-kind joint Catholic-Jewish project to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa is one of the main issues on the agenda of an international religious conference opening Monday in New York.

Some 27 bishops and cardinals and a number of Jewish scholars and rabbis from around the world are to attend the conference, sponsored for the third year by the World Jewish Congress (WJC).

Among the speakers at the opening session are Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, who recently retired from the post of archbishop of Paris, and Walter Cardinal Kaspar of Germany, president of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC governing board, will also speak.

Bishops from China, India, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea and the Ukraine, and four cardinals from Africa are among those attending.

The conference comes on the 40th anniversary of the 1965 declaration by the Catholic Church, Nostre Aestate, that signaled a change in its relation to the Jewish people.

"The increased Catholic presence at the conference this year is especially important, as senior Catholic clerics can influence the continued sympathetic policies to the Jewish people and Israel designed and implemented by Pope John Paul II," Singer said.

The conference is expected to issue a closing statement that "the two faiths cannot remain passive in the face of the human tragedy taking place in Africa due to the spread of AIDS." A statement condemning the genocide in Darfur is also expected.

The conference expresses "the unavoidable need for close cooperation between the two faiths on social issues," Singer told Haaretz. "No religion can struggle for its rights in a democratic way without the assistance of other religions," he said.