“Stigma and Religion: An Inevitable Partnership?"
"Stigma almost killed me" related one delegate who had been
ostracized from her church because of her HIV status. Her statement
underlined the continuing damage of HIV-related stigma, and the role of
religious leaders in reducing discrimination. This was the focus of a
satellite (session) facilitated by the Communities Responding to the
AIDS Epidemic (CORE).
Warren Buckingham, senior regional HIV/AIDS advisor for the US Agency
for International Development (USAID) started the presentation in his
capacity as an HIV-positive man of faith. "How we speak has a great
impact on who is included and excluded from communities". Some religious
leaders were driven by the "love of law rather than the law of love,"
using scripture to condemn rather than embrace people with HIV who may
be in need.
The following panel discussion was chaired by Stephen Lewis, UN
special envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa. Panel members represented
groups from the Christian and Muslim communities and their views were
notably concordant. They agreed that religious leaders who condemned
those with HIV were acting inappropriately, and selecting only
scriptures that condemned individuals for their sins rather than texts
that encouraged compassion and support for the needy.
It would perhaps have been more interesting to have comments from the
more fundamentalist religious leaders, although the panel did highlight
the very real damage that stigma could do within the church. Rev. Jape
Heath, coordinator of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living
with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, spoke of difficulties with the church
hierarchy when he shared his HIV status. Eventually he was "allowed" to
share his status with others, but church structures were inadequate to
deal with similar situations. He spoke of a fellow ordained who
literally "died of shame" once his family discovered his HIV-positive
status. He said there were particular understandings of sin, and the
notion that certain sins were acceptable. This was echoed later by
Shiekh Al Haj Yussuf, vice-chair of the Kenya Muslim Supreme Council.
Linking HIV with sin resulted directly in infected people going
"underground". One of the best ways to reduce stigma was to talk about
it whenever the opportunity arose; to break the silence.
Ways HIV-stigma could be reduced in organised religion were proposed
by various members of the panel. Dr. Musa Dube, consulting theologian
and member of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical HIV/AIDS
Initiative, suggested a new theology was required that would foster
respect and human dignity.
The place of traditional culture was also important in any debate about
religion and Bishop Otsile Ditchesko, Chair of the Southern African
Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC), called for its
inclusion in all discussions. Father Peter Lwaminda, Secretary General
of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM),
underlined the importance of not inspiring fear by condemnation - "let
him without sin cast the first stone".
The session's major themes were not especially novel, although it was
encouraging to see general agreement about key issues. Organised
religion seemed to be tussling with a topic it collectively found
difficult, but it was questionable how representative the panel was of
wider religious groups. There needs to be a new "textbook" of language
that does not stigmatise people with HIV, imbued with values that
reflect the inclusive side of religious beliefs. Whether or not
organised religion is able to achieve this, only time can tell.
Pamoja News is written and managed by
Health & Development Networks (HDN) as part of a collaborative
project with the ICASA Organisers.
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