African clerics rethink AIDS stance

At a Kenyan AIDS conference, leaders preach compassion, not criticism.

Theologian Musa Dube designed a simple service: participants would each light a candle and speak the name of a dead loved one.

But the small gesture was groundbreaking.

That's because it was a public acknowledgment that each person named had died of AIDS, something that religious communities across Africa have been reluctant to do.

"People came up to me with tears in their eyes and said, 'Thank you, it meant so much to me to be able to do that in church,' " says Professor Dube of Botswana.

Dube's service signals a fundamental shift going on all over Africa. Religious leaders are beginning to change their approach toward the AIDS epidemic sweeping their continent - moving from silence or even condemnation toward compassion and openness, according to people working on the issue.

National Christian and Muslim bodies are making it official policy to accept and support people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Pastors and imams are speaking in churches and mosques about the disease. Faith-based organizations are stepping up efforts to care for those made ill or orphaned by AIDS.

Religious leaders are discussing the turning tide during Africa's biggest forum on the epidemic - the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections, attended by some 8,000 researchers and activists this week in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

"There is a big change now," says Otsile Ditsheko, regional chairman of the Organization of African Instituted Churches, a grouping of independent denominations. Bishop Ditsheko says that AIDS is no longer seen as something that is foreign to the church.

Christo Greyling, a South African minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, announced 10 years ago that he had been diagnosed with HIV, prompting uncomfortable whispers from his community. Now he conducts workshops for clergy, urging compassion about AIDS.

"If I didn't see church leaders changing, I wouldn't have stayed involved for so long," says the Rev. Greyling. He says he has witnessed shifts in attitude from absolute judgment to complete compassion in his three days here.

Al-Hajj Yussuf Murigu, vice chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, says imams now talk in the mosque about AIDS, something they wouldn't do in the past. "The change is about 100 percent," he says.

Many would argue it's about time, given the profound toll the epidemic is taking on the continent. Some 15 million Africans have already died of AIDS, another 30 million are estimated to be carrying HIV, and 13 million children have lost at least one parent, according to statistics released this week in Nairobi by the United Nations Joint Program on AIDS and HIV.

The reluctance was rooted in the disease's connection to sexuality. Many Africans bought into the idea that AIDS was a curse from God when the spread of HIV was associated with gay sex. People with AIDS were often condemned as sinners, ostracized from their congregations, and refused funerals.

"We as religious leaders contributed a lot to the stigma," Sheikh Murigu admits.

Attempts to change that are coming both from top down and bottom up. Dube, the theologian, has compiled "Africa Praying: A Handbook on Sensitive HIV/AIDS Sermons and Liturgy," designed to help any pastor incorporate what she calls a theology of healing and compassion into worship services.

This week, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences in Africa, a grouping of Roman Catholic bishops, was devoting two days of its annual meeting to a discussion of HIV/AIDS. The World Council of Churches, a Protestant umbrella group, last year launched what it calls the Ecumenical HIV/AIDS Initiative in Africa, a program to help churches implement an action plan for responding to the disease.

"There has been a significant move in the past year or two among religious leaders to take on their responsibility to break the stigma," says James Cairns, a director of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, based in New York.

However, Mr. Cairns says more needs to be done to put policies into practice.

"A lot of it still has to filter down to local imams, local pastors, and local priests," he says.

Nor have church hierarchies shifted positions on how to prevent the spread of HIV. Encouraging condoms remains unacceptable to most religious groups.

In turn, that has reduced the willingness of many funding agencies to support faith-based organizations in prevention work. Yet proponents say the donors are missing out if they ignore religious groups in the battle against AIDS. An estimated 85 percent of Africans are actively involved in a religious community.

Helping religious organizations improve their response to the causes and consequences of AIDS is a key part of a major new initiative by the United States Agency for International Development, called Communities Responding to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic.

It's a move that Dube, among others, welcomes.

"Faith-based groups," she says, "are in touch with the people and they deal directly with those who need care."

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