A group of African clergy infected with HIV is urging the faithful to test for the virus and admit their status to help fight stigma hampering efforts to stem AIDS in the worst-affected continent.
Africa is home to 25 million of the world’s 38 million people with HIV/AIDS despite accounting for only 10 percent of the global population.
“HIV is a virus, it’s not a moral condition,” said Anglican vicar Father Jape Heath, who tested HIV positive in May 2000.
“What we’re encouraging people to do is to know their HIV status and to know there’s no concept of sin attached to HIV,” said the 41-year-old South African, a senior figure in the African Network for Religious Leaders Living With And Personally Affected by HIV/AIDS (ANERELA).
The charity was set up in 2002 to encourage greater openness about the virus.
Heath is one of the few Christian priests to openly declare his status since Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican clergyman from Uganda, became the first more than five years ago.
He was speaking on the sidelines of an ANERELA conference in Nairobi, where clergymen swapped their experiences of being infected with HIV and the discrimination they faced.
“DAMNATION AND PERSECUTION”
Religious leaders are hugely influential across Africa, where millions flock to churches, mosques and temples.
But they have long been guilty of fuelling stigma rather than fighting it, U.S. government development arm USAID’s senior regional HIV/AIDS adviser Warren Buckingham said.
“Where vision has been articulated by religious leaders, too much of it and for too long has been a vision of judgement and damnation, of punishment and persecution,” he was quoted as saying by Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.
Advised by his bishop, Heath did not inform his congregation until 2002.
“It was one of the most lonely things to be living with a condition like HIV and not to be allowed to speak to anyone about it,” he told Reuters. “It binds you into a place of silence as if there’s something so terrible about yourself.”
Heath criticised the “ABC” strategy - Abstinence, Be Faithful and use Condoms - promoted by many African countries, such as Uganda, to reduce infection rates.
“We see it as very stigmatising because it says to us the only mode of transmission in terms of HIV is sex,” he said.
“What does ABC say to the woman who has to make a decision as to whether she’s going to breastfeed or bottlefeed? Absolutely nothing. What does it say to the doctor who’s determining whether to re-use needles or use a clean one? Absolutely nothing.”
Not only does lack of information put Africans at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, but so does many cultural practices, Zambian Muslim cleric Sheikh Ali Banda said.
He cited the custom of wife inheritance, when widows are passed on to the family of her dead husband, as exposing women to the disease.
“As religious leaders we should understand that it’s not a curse, not everyone that is HIV positive is promiscuous, not everyone who is HIV positive is sexually immoral,” he said.
Africa’s HIV pandemic is one of the main issues leaders of the G8 group of rich nations hope to help tackle at next month’s summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.
Revision date: July 4, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD