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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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Faith-based HIV work doing more harm than good, says African church leader


 By staff writers

16 Aug 2006

In focussing participation in the sixteenth international AIDS conference in Toronto, Canada, faith leaders chose the title ëThe challenge to deliverí for a discussion on the role of the churches and related bodies in the global response to the HIV pandemic.

Presenters included the Rev J.P. Heath of ANERELA+ (African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Affected by HIV), who spoke out forcefully on the need for the churches to engage far more honestly with the realities of HIV/AIDS.

ìAs faith-based organisations we have been involved in HIV prevention, but we have been doing more harm than good,î said J.P. Heath.

He explained: ìWe have offered care - made promises to look after orphans and [to] help with funeral fees. We must [now] stop helping people to die and start helping them to live. We must mobilise faith leaders to say that we can live with HIV.î

There was recognition among the religious leaders that one of their biggest challenges comes from those who use the language of faith or the doctrine of the church to preach that HIV is a punishment from God and that the use of condoms is a sin.

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The head of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Mark Warner, said the church had to understand that the prohibition on the use of condoms was exacerbating the disease rather than preventing it. Abstinence as the only form of prevention was not viable when discussing HIV prevention, he said.

ìChurches must realise that the use of condoms in fighting HIV is not contrary to our moral teaching,î said Bishop Warner.

All agreed that to find common ground on this issue in the church was one of their greatest challenges, according to a report from UK-based international relief and development agency Christian Aid ñ who have been consciously seeking to change the grounds of the debate among their own church supporters.

The US congresswoman who is seeking to overturn its abstinence-only clauses in the US governmentís PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) fund said that the future of women and girls was more important than ideology.

Barb Lee also quoted her governmentís own auditing body, which had criticised the abstinence clauses as distorting prevention programmes.

There is a general consensus among health prevention workers and policy analysts that abstinence is often not an option for poor women and girls who do not have the ability to demand the use of a condom from their partners.

Statistics and on-the-ground experience also shows that in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the majority of HIV-positive women and young girls are infected within marriage.

The Rev J.P. Heath said that donor agencies, and especially faith-based ones, must listen to those on the ground who understand what is needed in their communities. He also called for more funds to fight stigma and discrimination.

ìPEPFAR is not serving our communities well,î he said. ìIt must move away from imposing policies and rely instead on policies proven on the ground. Let the people decide what is best for them.î

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The ANERELA+ alternative model to PEPFAR and the approach of those Catholic and evangelical agencies who oppose condom-use is called SAFE. It stands for: Safer practices; Available medications; Voluntary counselling and testing (VCT); and Empowerment.

Christians have much to learn from other faiths about overcoming stigmatisation of people living with HIV, the faith leaders meeting was also told.

"Buddhists are amazing because they are so humble. They are an example of a non-judgmental religion," said Dr Manoj Kurian, who coordinates work on HIV and AIDS for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. "They accept people as they are."