AFRICA: Religious Leaders Urged to Drop 'Holier Than Thou' Attitude to HIV. 20/6/07
NAIROBI, 20 June (PLUSNEWS) - Understanding and support, not moral judgment, is what HIV-positive people need from their religious leaders; this was the message from a recent meeting of the International Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS (INERELA+) in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
"The attitude taken by most religious leaders towards those infected by HIV is one of condemnation: that the reward for sin is calamity and death," Sheikh Ali Banda, from the Islamic Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, told IRIN/PlusNews. "This should not be the attitude, because when one has lost hope one turns to the mosque or church for consolation."
Banda, whose older brother died from an AIDS-related illness, said ignorance was the main reason for such attitudes. "It is important for religious leaders to have HIV awareness, so that the information trickles down to the congregation," he said. "We should not judge people by the calamities that have befallen them, but by teaching them how HIV is spread so they can avoid infection."
Although religious institutions in Africa have been integral in providing care and support to communities affected by AIDS, particularly in the area of setting up home-based care programmes, their impact on raising awareness about the pandemic has often been limited to preaching abstinence and faithfulness, with some describing the AIDS pandemic as divine retribution for pre- and extramarital sex.
Uganda's Canon Gideon Byamugisha, former chair of INERELA+'s African chapter, said the network was advocating a shift from condemnatory prevention messages, which only served to increase stigma, to a focus on improving HIV awareness.
"The message we would like to get across is that HIV is preventable, while AIDS is manageable," he said. "People must know their status, because those who are positive think they are negative, while those who are negative are afraid they could be positive."
Byamugisha disclosed his HIV-positive status shortly after being diagnosed in 1992. He noted that religious leaders living with HIV were especially subject to stigma, due to the position they occupied in society.
"People wonder how church leaders get HIV ... sometimes you never know how you got infected - maybe through injections, blood transfusion or sex in marriage," he said. "It is not important to know how someone got infected, but to know how one can continue to live positively," he said.
The organisation has dubbed its approach to HIV control 'SAVE': Safer practices to prevent infection and for the care of infected persons; Access and availability to treatment and nutrition; Voluntary counselling and testing; and Empowerment with knowledge and skills.
In nations like Burundi and Uganda, many churches and mosques require couples to be tested for HIV before marriage, but Banda described the practice as hypocritical unless religious leaders were also willing to be tested.
INERELA+'s membership has grown from eight in 2002 to about 2,700 today, and includes religious leaders from a wide variety of faiths.
At the Nairobi meeting, South Africa's Rev Christo Greyling, who has lived with the HI virus for over 20 years, was elected chairman of INERELA+'s Africa chapter.