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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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“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.

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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".

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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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