Faith News 2015

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A Discussion with Peter Okaalet, (formerly with) MAP International. 10/4/2015



Background: Peter Okaalet has long experience with the HIV and AIDS pandemic, both as a physician and a theologian. He has thus witnessed the evolution of thinking and practice and the impact of this disease on both society and church. In this discussion with Crystal Corman in Nairobi on April 10, 2015, he reflects on his own path and the importance he attaches to ensuring that pastors are knowledgeable about the disease and its impact in order to minister to them. Curricula he has developed are now in common use. The recent devolution of health services is an important and complex step, with advantages but also challenges.    
To start with, how did you become so deeply involved in Kenya’s health issues?

In 1988 a young man, John, died in my hands with complications of HIV/AIDS. I was working in a hospital in Uganda as a medical practitioner. He challenged me: “If I were you, I wouldn’t do more degrees in medicine, I would go and do theology.” I asked why? “Because all of us are going to die someday, but if indeed there is another life up there, I don’t want to miss that life because now this one is ending.” Four days later, he died. I think he knew how he had contracted the virus so he was dealing with issues of forgiveness, issues of another life, and issues of just coping with the pain.  

That challenged me (and continues to challenge me to this day): that my medical training up to that point was not helping me. In Uganda in those days, we didn’t have antiretrovirals (ARVs), the medication that is now prolonging people’s lives. So I just watched him and prayed with him until he passed away. That kept going through my mind: how could I have helped him? Was there something else I could have done? So I took up the challenge of doing theology. My wife and I crossed the border to Kenya in 1990 (two and a half years later). We came to study theology at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. It’s now Africa International University. We haven’t gone back to Uganda since then, except for visits to family members, and when necessary.  

What was your focus as a student of theology?

Upon completion of my master of divinity in 1993, the college asked me to be the medical doctor of the college, which involved looking after the lives of students, their families, faculty, staff members, and so on. But I had my mornings free, so I asked them to support me to do another master’s degree. I did a master’s in theology on the relationship between husbands and wives. Within biblical studies I chose to focus on husband and wife relationships, specifically headship and submission. Submission is a very sticky word. So I focused on what is in the Bible about what women should do and what men should do.

I didn’t reject the word submission because it is Biblical. It is difficult to rub it away but we can understand why it is there. When you start by understanding submission is meant to be mutual, it makes it a little easier to talk about wife submission, roles and responsibilities. Then the challenge for the man is to love his wife like Christ loved the church, willing to die for the church. That’s where many men fail. When it’s convenient for them they will talk about submit, submit, submit. Then when it is not they will shift to ‘my culture says this.’ Africa is a hierarchical society, so it is cultural for man to be above girls and women.

How did this theology expertise blend with your health work?

When I completed these studies, MAP (Medical Assistance Programs) International was looking for someone and I was hired after graduating with my second masters in 1996. From 1996 to 2011, I worked with MAP International at the East Africa region level, the continental level, and then the international level: from 2002-2006 I was Africa director, then 2006-2011, I worked in the global role as the senior director for Health and HIV/AIDS Policy for MAP offices in Latin America, some here in Africa, and in the US in Atlanta, Georgia. By God’s grace, I even addressed the US Senate (in February 2003) on the role of faith-based organizations in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  

How did you get involved with HIV/AIDS in the first place?

Uganda used to be at the top of everybody’s lists because the President was really at it.
They had the best response: openness, welcoming, compassionate, and talking about it. We started responding to HIV/AIDS in 1986. I was trained in 1987 for pre-test and post-test counseling.  

There was an organization that was created by Noerine Kaleeba: TASO, (The AIDS Support Organization). Her husband passed away due to complications of AIDS through a blood transfusion; the blood was infected. He was flown to the UK for treatment but, long story short, he succumbed. Three months later, she decided to do something about this disease and worked towards preventing other people from catching it, especially women. So Noerine created that organization. She started training people who were willing. At the time, I was working in Eastern Uganda and she was based in Kampala. Their team came to our region to train those of us interested in learning. That was my initial involvement. TASO reached out to religious groups, churches, pastors, and bishops. Then one of the Anglican bishops, Bishop Misairi Kauma, lost his son also around that time.

Were churches and faith leaders open to getting involved in HIV/AIDS?

When Bishop Kauma was told his son died of complications of AIDS, he reflected on the use of condoms and the roles of church leaders and so on, especially on the Catholic Church opposition to condoms. He asked himself after 3-4 months, “Suppose that my son had protected himself that night, the night he got the infection... Perhaps he would not have been infected.” So he coined a phrase when he was talking to young people: “If you are going to be so foolish enough to engage in pre-marital sex, don’t be so stupid as to not protect yourself.” He did not mention the C word, but at least the message went home to young people.  

Because of his activism, the president of Uganda made him the chairman of the National AIDS Commission (NAC). Here in Kenya it’s called the National AIDS Control Council. From that point on it has been headed by religious people. If it is not a Catholic bishop, it will be an Anglican bishop, or the leader of one of the other main religious groups as chair. President Museveni realized there is something about religious people. They have a big following, and when they speak, people listen. They are very influential, as I’m sure you have found.

So would you say this is part of the reason that Uganda’s response was so strong?

Its response to HIV/AIDS was very strong, but in those days we were not talking about strategic planning with a national strategy. The President led the way and leaders below him, like the bishops and carried the agenda. Eventually when the prevalence rates came down, the researchers came and asked what we had done. Initially I think the response in Uganda was just ad-hoc. People were dying in South Western Uganda. Those who died were the parents and young adults, so children were now heads of households. When a community noticed this, they had to pull up their socks and do something about care and behavior. Only later did plans and strategies emerge, as countries sought external financial support.  

Apparently over the years the leadership [of Uganda] has deviated to other areas so we see the focus on HIV/AIDS is really going down. While other countries used to go and learn from the experience of Uganda, now people are coming to Kenya. People from China and India, from other places, come to Kenya because Kenya seems to have got their act together and the prevalence is much lower now than even Uganda. The national average in Kenya is about 5.6. But in some regions it is much higher depending on the behaviors of the people, culture, social practices, etc.

Why do you think that Kenya is doing so well? What do you think they’re doing right?

A main factor is that the leadership is in place. The National AIDS Control Council in Kenya is the coordinating body. When it was created, they developed two documents: a monitoring and evaluation framework and then a strategic plan. They talked about the Three-Ones: having a coordinating body, a strategic plan, and a monitoring and evaluation tool. Then you can begin to put your arms around the response to HIV/AIDS.  

Recognizing the role of religious leaders has been important: the Council is working together with religious leaders very closely. I have been invited to support here and there the development of the National AIDS Action Plan and the National Action Plan by faith-based organizations. While we have focused on the national response, the government is now devolved politically so now we have 47 counties plus the national plan.

So devolution also includes the health system?

Everything is included. It is a challenge to devolve health, including the doctors, the nurses and staff. There have been reactions and some problems such as doctors going on strike, people unattended and dying, nurses going on strike because they did not want their salary to come from the county. They wanted to be paid by the national government. They felt remaining with the federal government was better for their career.    

The Ministry of Health has had good discussions with several of the governors in terms of approaching the challenges. The process has not gone very smoothly. It’s very complicated. Kenya has medical groups and the churches also have hospitals. I think over 40 percent of the response to challenges in health is through faith-based organizations and the government recognizes their importance. The Protestant churches have the Christian Health Association of Kenya (CHAK), which is quite involved and the Catholics have an equivalent, the Kenyan Episcopal Conference, now known as the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB). They are working together. MEDS (Mission for Essential Drugs and Supplies) is coordinated by the KCCB and CHAK: they handle pharmaceuticals for some of the UN bodies, CDC and even PEPFAR with the ARVs and so on.  

Tell me more about the Kenya national strategy and if or how faith-based providers are involved?

Nationally there is a Kenya AIDS Strategy Framework. The government has asked the faith-based organizations how they plan to fit into this. A meeting was held in Nakuru at the end of March 2015, to discuss how the faith-based organizations respond to that at a national level but also at the county level. At the moment, they’re trying to identify (faith leaders) champions from each of the counties who will then work together with the National AIDS Control Council (NACC). The NACC recognizes that approximately 95 percent of this country professes some kind of faith and therefore they are working to have a desk for faith-based organizations. That way, they will work with the Ministry of Health, universities, the private sector, and several other groups that are similar to faith-based organizations. If indeed they partner with faith actors, building their capacity and especially documenting what they are doing to share with the government, this will go a long way towards realizing the goals of the framework.  

Kenya, it seems, has been involving faith actors for quite a while.

Yes, a long while. But there are still gaps. “If you are doing four things very well” (Peter held up four fingers), “there are three gaps”. Three things very well, there will be two gaps. We need to partner with others who face gaps to strengthen each other. In all these countries they are discussing issues like how to get the religious people involved, whether it’s in reconciliation, gender issues, peace building, HIV/AIDS. I think there are more religious actors who speak up in this part of the world. It’s very key.

I will be one of 90+ leaders who’ll attend a PEPFAR consultation (April 2015) on the role of faith-based organizations in sustaining community and country leadership in the response to HIV/AIDS. It is to follow-up with those faith-based organizations that were invited from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania, two years ago. They want to know what different things have been done, how have they used the recommendations? We’ll continue to sustain this response by faith-based organizations for HIV/AIDS. Emory University is involved, as well as PEPFAR, and CDC.

On HIV/AIDS, where is Kenya now? Where does the most focus need to be?

The young people are most affected. Those between 15 and 24 are dying more of AIDS than any other age group. It seems we focused on adults so much that we forgot that group.  

Kenya has developed a Kenya HIV Prevention Revolution Road Map, count down to 2030. The aim is to focus on ‘Cluster A’ Counties, with an HIV prevalence of between 10 and 28 percent. These are: Nairobi, HomaBay, Kisumu, Siaya, Migori, Mombasa, Turkana, Busia, Kissi (Kenya HIV Prevention Road Map, by NACC and NASCOP, 2013).  

How do faith-based organizations work with that group if they are unmarried?

Faith communities much use the structures they already have, whether they are Muslim or Catholic, Christian, Protestant. If you have Sunday school or youth group, how can you talk about relationships and HIV/AIDS prevention?  

In my church, we have a ROPES (Rites Of Passage Experiences) curriculum that Christianizes rites of passage from child to adulthood, hoping to make rites and rituals safe, involve the parents, and teach about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man.

What can you tell me about curriculum or training for faith leaders on health topics like HIV/AIDS?

For HIV/AIDS, we recognized that many of the pastors didn’t know how to go about addressing the issue in the congregation. So we thought that we needed to come up with a curriculum targeting theological institutions, Bible schools. The goal was that before these pastors graduate and before they are sent out to minister, at least they will have gone through HIV/AIDS training. We started with manuals and came up with something called Choosing Hope, with eight modules. It dealt with various aspects of hope. That’s for people who already graduated and are working in their churches, like refresher courses.  

We saw that this was not enough, so decided to go into the institutions. We (at MAP International) developed a strategy called HIV/AIDS Education in Theological Education. We worked with St. Paul’s University in Limuru. Now they are running programs at undergraduate level, and at master’s degree level. At the M.A. level, it is the Community Care and HIV/AIDS program. The first class graduated in 2006. Once the curriculum is in the school then all the students going through that school can benefit. Students can choose to sign up. The core course is theology and then there are electives. But in the end, everyone has to go through it. I think it became mandatory. St. Paul’s picked it up first. Lately, several other schools in the region like, Uganda Christian University, picked it up.  

Also implementing the M.A. level curriculum–with contextual modifications–are: Makumira in Tanzania, Kwazulu Natal and Stellenbosch Universities in South Africa, Evangelical Theological College, in Ethiopia,

Has this training for clergy been effective?

Unfortunately we don’t have the funds to follow through with, for example, a cohort study where you compare congregations run by people who have gone through that course and another as a control. Anecdotally, though, we can see that there’s a lot of difference. I’ve visited and worked with some of them. It’s exciting to see what they’re doing. Some of them are asking for Ph.D. and the masters level courses. It makes a big difference when we follow that model in terms of understanding, responding, prevention, care, and support.

What are the main HIV/AIDS issues in Kenya today? And do you see far less orphans as a result of AIDS?

If you compare the population of adults on treatment to those that are diagnosed with HIV, and those who need the treatment, the population of adults on treatment is bigger than the population of the children. Pediatric AIDS is still a challenge. Another challenge that is coming up is children who are born with HIV whose parents died, who are growing up as a teenagers and young people. There you cannot talk about prevention, yet they need to be taken care of. But they are now at the point that they are getting into social relationships, so how do you handle that? This is a challenge not just for Kenya but for the region.  

Some groups focusing on this group: the clinics and hospitals run by Africa Inland Church, like Kijabe Hospital. They give them the medication and treatment, and they report regularly for checkups. But who is addressing the psychosocial issues these young people have? I want to do something about that–and/or partner with others doing the same. And I’ve considered writing a book on the subject.

So there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done?

Yes indeed. When I hear about an AIDS-free generation, I think it’s just a statement. We can hope to stop new infections or reduce them sharply by 2030, as in the strategic plan. That is a goal that can be achieved. But in terms of an AIDS-free society, I think that is a little too ambitious, because of the number of people infected will continue to go up. Now retired or elderly people are starting to contract HIV/AIDS because of their life styles – and the elders have kind of been left out of programming. Men, when they pass the midlife crisis, want to prove something. So apparently there’s a spike among that generation that is getting infected.

Do you think all the awareness raising will have a lasting, life-long impact? Or are people forgetting about the risks?

Uganda is the only country in the region where there is resurgence. All the things we talked about were done, for example bishops and everyone responding. For a generation, few of them have died. But I think they are just worn out. So I think we just need to keep retraining generation by generation. Otherwise people become complacent. Now that we have ARVs, people know they can take their medication and continue to live normally. This is in itself a challenge because people now view HIV like hypertension or diabetes: I can live with it, so what is the big deal?  

What are some of the sticky issues for religious leaders in terms of engaging on HIV/AIDS work?

I’ve done trainings with religious leaders across denominational divides. In one meeting a Catholic bishop said, “Surely you don’t expect me to hold the Bible in one hand and a condom in the other hand and give it to the congregation? Is that what you expect me to do?” I responded by saying that from the pulpit in church, I will leave that to the Bible. But after mass, in a one-on-one meeting, you can offer to talk about how each individual needs to protect him/herself. Some of the bishops have come a long way to appreciate the fact that they may not distribute condoms but they just need to work with everybody who needs to be protected. Whatever their lifestyle and whatever they’ve chosen to do, they need to be protected. Some religious leaders are outspoken and they can be approached. Some are not. People learn who can be approached. 


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Faith Organizations Key HIV Carers. 04/12/2015

Published at

Wriiten by Robert Vitillo

30 November 2015

Worldwide, faith-based organisations serve a significant percentage of people living with HIV. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that 30-70 percent of health care in low-income countries is operated by faith-based organisations (FBOs). Catholic Church-related organisations engaged in HIV response are active in at least 114 countries.

Read the Caritas Internationalis statement

The contribution of FBOs to healthcare, and particularly to HIV care, has not always received the recognition it deserves. Some governments and experts in the medical field recognize us as well intentioned and “nice” people and express appreciation for our programmes at the grassroots, but they often claim that we just don’t enough data to demonstrate the effectiveness of our programmes.

The report “Ending AIDS as a Public Health Threat” offers compelling evidence that, in many parts of the world, FBOs are key stakeholders in the HIV field. The report not only shows what we’re doing, but it also presents approaches that could serve as good care models for both governments and private providers..

Particularly in developing countries, FBOs have long-established traditions of caring for the poorest and least developed communities. The quality of care is motivated by the value of service and is driven by an ethos of compassion and solidarity.

One of the differences between FBOs and other medical providers is that they take into account the needs of the whole person – including their emotional, social and spiritual needs. We do not consider only their medical conditions.

In fact, I think that the provision of pastoral or spiritual care if one of the most essential components of FBO health programmes. People have better recovery rates when they receive pastoral care; this is true for many illnesses, not only for HIV infection, but also for other illnesses. Spirituality beliefs and practices provide people with a way of expressing and strengthening their relationship with God.

Therefore, it is an important element of life for many people in various parts of the world. Clients or patients receiving services from FBOs often say that they prefer this approach to treatment – the holistic care doesn’t just treat the body but also cares for the mind and spirit. It provides people with the motivation to stay on treatment and to live longer.

While preparing our report, we saw excellent examples of holistic care. For example, hospitals and clinics associated with Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau provide professional medical care, social and economic help, as well as pastoral care and training to gain new job skills.

People living with HIV reported that they faced much less stigmatizing or discrimination when seeking services from FBOs. They also claimed that they felt more secure that staff of FBOs are better at maintaining confidentiality. Staff and volunteers in FBOs are trained to show respect for those who are suffering and to uphold the Church belief that all people are created in the image and likeness and God, whatever their health status might be.

When the HIV epidemic moved into its third decade, the international public health community focused more on a systematic and targeted response than on emergency response. The trend now is to have governments take more responsibility for HIV but in low- and middle-income countries, the governments often are burdened with weak healthcare infrastructures and are not always able to reach all people living in poverty or in rural areas.

Also, many of those interviewed reported that they were facing cutbacks in funding, which results in many challenges and problems. There is a serious concern that national governments and/or foreign funders will no longer provide enough support to assure life-long medicines for people living with HIV?

Another serious issue concerns the future of AIDS orphans. It is estimated that 17 million children and adolescents worldwide who have lost parents to AIDS-related illnesses. Some of these children rebel against their situation, which becomes even more complicated when the young people themselves are living with HIV. Special efforts are needed to respond to the needs of these vulnerable young people.

In order to achieve universal access to treatment for all people living with HIV, all key stakeholders, including governments, international organisations, civil society, faith-based organisations, and groups of people living with HIV will need to develop stronger partnerships and collaboration.

Dr. Luiz Loures, Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS, identified the crucial contribution of FBOs to this type of partnership, “We are entering a new phase where we can see the beginning of the end of AIDS. The faith communities have the scale, and the means to move us forward. You care about the dignity of the person and it is only this unique combination of access to drugs and dignity that can provide the necessary drive to reach the end of the AIDS epidemic.”

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‘HIV a health, not moral, issue’. 10/03/2015

Published at NewsDay
Written by Phyllis Mbanje
9 March 2015

HEALTH activists have launched a campaign to lobby churches and other institutions to view HIV as a health and not moral issue so as to eradicate stigma associated with the condition.

This was revealed during the launch of the Zimbabwe Stigma Index (ZSI) report convened by the Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV (ZNNP+) in Harare.

The ZSI is a research initiative driven and implemented by people living with HIV. It seeks to measure the levels of stigma associated with HIV.

Participants called on church leaders to be open about HIV and Aids issues and discourage congregants from looking at it from a moralistic point of view which they described as judgmental.

Tonderai Chiduku, co-ordinator of national stigma index, said some of the findings of their research were that leaders of various churches were reluctant to discuss HIV and Aids and even those who were infected were reluctant to disclose their status.

“We need to put in place some form of dialogue with the church and discuss these concerns because they hamper access to treatment,” Chiduku said.

He also raised concern over church leaders who discouraged their HIV-positive congregants from taking medication on false assurances that they had healed spiritually. “This is a big issue which requires setting up a framework for dialogue.”

Speaking at the same event, ZNNP+ executive director Muchanyara Mukamuri said the report’s main objective was to help stakeholders come up with interventions that would effectively address issues of stigma.

“Because stigma acts as a barrier to treatment, it should be dealt with if we are to realise our goal of getting to zero new infections,” Mukamuri said.

She, however, said the fight against HIV and Aids was pivoted on adequate funding which was still a problem in Zimbabwe.

“What we need is domestic financing because if we continue to rely on outside funding, they will continue to dictate to us and some of their programmes might not be suitable or helpful in our context,” she said.

Other key findings of the report, whose research was commissioned in 2013, indicate that children of people living with the HIV were among the most discriminated.

“This occurs in various settings, school, and church and even at health facilities,” Chiduku said. Of the over 1 900 respondents who took part in the research, 65,5% had experienced form of stigma and discrimination.


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AIDS: Churches Work Across local Networks in Latin America and Caribbean. 04/12/2015

Published at

1 December 2015

GENEVA, 1 December 2015 (LWI) - The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) member churches in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), through the regional HIV and AIDS network, are among several churches in the Lutheran communion that observe World AIDS Day on 1 December and throughout the Advent season.

Lutheran churches in the LAC region will hold a series of activities including worship services using the World AIDS Day liturgy prepared by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance initiative of the World Council of Churches. They support the global United Nations goals of zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination.

The liturgy, which has been translated into Spanish by members of the Christian Lutheran Church of Honduras (ICLH), illustrates the reality of those living with HIV in Swaziland and the work of the Roman Catholic Cabrini Ministries, which works among them.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Colombia (IELCO) will come together with other faith-based organizations in a liturgical service on 5 December focused on stopping the spread of HIV. The initiative shows the solidarity by people of faith against AIDS in Colombia, said Rosemary Corner of IELCO.

The ICLH is raising awareness about HIV and AIDS while strengthening local networks working on the issue. It collaborates with World Vision and agencies such as the Rina Rhodes Health Center in Colonia, San Francisco.

The Lutheran Church of Peru (ILP) works with the Peruvian Interfaith Network in its AIDS response, which is incorporated in the church’s advocacy on human rights and the focus on ending violence against women. On 29 November the network held a service to affirm the dignity of those living with HIV and AIDS.

“Violence against women is not only a major public health and human rights throughout the world; it also significantly increases the vulnerability of women to HIV and AIDS,” remarked Maria Trinidad, a member of the interfaith network.

An estimated 1.2 million people have died from AIDS-related diseases globally, while 37 million people are living with HIV, according to UNAIDS. In addition, 2 million people became newly infected in 2015, and 22 million people worldwide living with HIV are still not accessing treatment.

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Syringe Exchange: A Moral Issue. 10/3/2015

Published at The Body
Written by Benjamin Shepard et al.
Winter 2009/2010


When thinking about HIV prevention, it is useful to consider a few statistics. More than a quarter of AIDS cases in the U.S. among people 13 and older are directly linked to the use of injection drugs. Among women, 40% of AIDS cases are due to injection drug use or sex with someone who contracted HIV through injecting. Injection drug users (IDUs) account for some 30% of all people with AIDS in the U.S. Once infected, IDUs have the highest illness and death rates and progress to AIDS faster than any other group. IDUs account for 70% of people with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), and a third of all people with HIV also have HCV. And much of this takes place among already at-risk groups. "African-Americans and Latinos face disproportionately high rates of HIV due to injection drug use," notes the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Pervasive stigma towards drug use among health care providers results in unequal treatment for people with a history of drug injection, leading to suboptimal care."

When thinking about HIV and about health in general, we must also consider social and economic gaps. One in five New Yorkers lives in poverty. In the U.S. as a whole, the richest 1% of the population controls more of the nation's wealth than the bottom 90% combined. Such inequality directly affects the general health and HIV risk factors of the poor. "We carry our history in our bodies" explained one doctor, reflecting on the effects of income and social issues on health. Economic policy is health policy. This is particularly true with regard to HIV and HCV.

The greater prevalence of HIV among women and drug users in African-American and Latino communities complicates an already difficult situation. To be at all effective, HIV prevention efforts must attempt to curb HIV stigma, sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social injustices, such as poor education and lack of housing. All of these factors fuel high-risk behavior, which increases the risk of HIV and HCV exposure. Social stigma, discrimination, the invisibility of drug users in public health policies, and "abstinence-only" approaches based on ideology rather than evidence all serve to limit access to HIV prevention services and quality health care. But there are options out there.


Syringe Exchange

The single most effective means of HIV prevention among IDUs is syringe exchange. This harm reduction approach offers tools to protect the health and well-being of drug users and their sexual partners, loved ones, and communities. Syringe exchange programs (SEPs) provide tools, resources, and education to assist people who inject drugs by helping them learn about and use safer injection and safer sex practices. They have had a tremendous impact on the HIV epidemic, and the annual incidence of new HIV infections among IDUs has dropped roughly 80% since the late 1980s.

Despite their remarkable effectiveness in reducing HIV, SEPs are not as widespread as they should be, and significant gaps and challenges remain. Stigma, community opposition, and severely limited funding sources, have worked to prevent SEPs from meeting the growing needs of their communities. National studies have found that areas with high rates of HIV infection often do not offer legal access to sterile syringes. Even in states where syringe exchange is openly available, regulations can be onerous. Jamie Favaro, Executive Director of the Washington Heights Corner Project, noted providers must jump through a number of hoops to get such programs off the ground: "A lot of work goes into getting a syringe exchange program started. And I found that through doing that, who I was as an activist and my work really changed." Many such programs are forced to confront a constant onslaught of questions and concerns by those who view drug use in terms of morality rather than public health.


Faith-Based Barriers

Compounding this, communities of faith have not consistently embraced HIV prevention among IDUs. Very few have stepped forward to support syringe exchange or commonsense HIV prevention. For example, on a recent trip to Africa, the Pope reiterated his longstanding opposition to condom use, even to fight HIV. Gay and bisexual men, IDUs, and other groups at high risk of HIV infection are often not represented among religious communities. Moralizing HIV infection and drug use has significantly restricted the dialogue around HIV and IDUs, with negative effects on public health policy and funding for SEPs.

While syringe exchange has long been recognized by the public health community as a valuable and effective tool in HIV prevention, communities of faith have historically been ambivalent about supporting it. "Religious traditions had a paradoxical impact on the social response to the epidemic: both a source of stigma and the basis of enormous concern and compassion," writes sociologist Susan M. Chambré. "Some religious leaders used AIDS as an object lesson illustrating moral decline. Others preached compassion and emphasized the obligation to care for the sick and dying." Generally speaking, opposition to syringe exchange has been rooted in the belief that supporting syringe exchange is an endorsement of drug use. Despite the fact that it has been shown that syringe exchange does not encourage or increase drug use, the condemnation of drug use has been a primary barrier to its acceptance.


Faith-Based Efforts

Syringe Exchange: A Moral Issue Yet there are examples of faith-based efforts to support these programs. For example, CitiWide Harm Reduction began operations in 1995 with the support of La Resurrection United Methodist Church, providing services in areas of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx that few service providers had reached out to. St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction in the Bronx was founded with a similar mission. Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan has long facilitated and supported harm reduction training and practices. Other religious groups, including the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, The United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Union for Reform Judaism have come out in support of harm reduction and SEPs. Some congregations have even blessed condoms and syringes in the hopes of curbing the spread of the virus. Others have facilitated harm reduction outreach.

The HIV work of religious groups has its roots in a holistic concern for preventive health care, respect for the dignity of those affected, and a fundamental belief that each person has an essential worth. Houses of worship first offered care and treatment for people with HIV and their families, and gradually shifted into sexual health efforts to address HIV and other STIs. Eventually, they began HIV prevention efforts for high risk-populations, including IDUs.

Churches in hard-hit communities have been compelled to confront their own theologies. For many years, traditional moralism had a negative impact on HIV prevention and care. Father Errol Harvey, formerly of Manhattan's St. Augustine Church, explained: "There is more awareness for the issue now. Not sure if the needle exchange issue is passé now. Many leaders in the black church are still learning. I would like to think that this has changed/is changing. To take a stand in endorsing needle exchange is a big jump."

Catholic Charities in San Francisco took over an HIV housing program that had run into financial troubles. The program provided housing, services, and stability for people in need. But they were unable to support harm reduction efforts such as providing condoms. The result was uneven, which typifies the Catholic Church's response. While many saw harm reduction in terms of permissiveness, others saw it as part of a theology of care, blessing syringes and condoms as part of comprehensive outreach.


Personal Responses

Reverend Stacey Latimer is the Founder/CEO of Love Alive International Inc., a faith-based nonprofit committed to empowering those affected by HIV and other heath problems that plague the black community. "HIV has become the teacher," he explains. "It has caused us to have to deal with issues we have not wanted to deal with including drug use. Our own theologies have paralyzed us. God has raised up nonprofits which have taught the church theology of human compassion. No one can one look at who they are as separate from our struggles." Given this, Latimer has been able to embrace harm reduction. "Drug users are a people who are a part of us. When one is suffering, when one is hurt, we are all hurt. Leaders don't want to talk about drug use because they don't want to talk about their own drug use. When I talk to you I have to talk about me. Help them see who they are and where there are holes in the fence that they are trying to build up and you do it through love."

"Needle exchange offered us a way to say that drug addicts are people and they have an illness that merits concern and love."

Father Harvey saw the AIDS battle as part of a larger struggle for social justice, and in a biblical context similar to leprosy. "How are we to treat people who have been afflicted by a terrible disease," he asks. "People moralize AIDS, and the church needed to step up and take leadership on this issue." So Harvey viewed harm reduction efforts within a similar humanist view. "Needle exchange offered us a way to say that drug addicts are people and they have an illness that merits concern and love. Needle exchange was a reality. Until we get people in [drug] treatment then this is a way to take care of them."

In 1993, Father Robert Arpin wrote a book of letters entitled Wonderfully, Fearfully Made, about his experience of living with HIV as an openly gay priest. "AIDS is a sickness, a disease -- not a moral judgment, not God's wrath," he wrote to his congregation: "Tell [those with AIDS] that they are loved, not by God, but by you. Because the only hands God has to touch them with are your hands. And the only heart God has to love them with is your heart." Arpin would die the following year, but not without planting a seed of tolerance that spread. When Geneva Bell's son died of AIDS in the early 1990s, she wrote about her experience in My Rose: An African American Mother's Story of AIDS. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago reflected on her experience: "[R]eading her story may awaken us to the true meaning of Jesus' words: 'Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my little ones you have done it unto me.' It is certainly my prayer that the latter will be the case." Many -- but not all -- faith communities have taken his words to heart.



As these stories attest, the response of faith communities to HIV and syringe exchange has been mixed and complicated. Bob Arpin noted that the Catholic Church was homophobic and tolerated him only because of his illness. As the current Pope's speech in Africa suggests, hard-line theology still often trumps evidence-based HIV prevention. Yet, on the ground, people from a wide range of perspectives have learned from their experience of coping with HIV. As this article was being completed, Catholic Charities New York announced that for the first time it would support SEPs in New York State. "I understand there will be questions, but this is common sense," said Sister Maureen Joyce, CEO of Catholic Charities. Many have turned away from hard-and-fast positions to support any program they can find, including syringe exchange, that will curb the epidemic. Yet, moralism dies hard, and continues to impede public health efforts. n

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Addressing the HIV threat through education and training. 9/3/2015

Published at WCC
Written by Sandra Cox
23 February 2015

Addressing the HIV threat through education and trainingThe idea that HIV is present in the life of every human being, regardless of their susceptibility to the disease, could be seen as shocking. It could even be offensive.


But it is the premise behind a successful HIV training programme, based in one of the societies with the highest HIV rates in the world, South Africa – that has sent out hundreds of educators and reached tens of thousands of people for more than a decade.

Lyn van Rooyen, executive director at the Christian AIDS Bureau for Southern Africa (CASBA), a partner organization of the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy, says this provocative approach suggests everyone should treat HIV as a community problem.

HIV education programmes are as good as useless – or even detrimental - if they add to the stigma surrounding the disease or approach HIV as someone else’s problem, she says.

“Churches may have a wonderful idea to run an HIV programme in townships and poor areas here in South Africa, for example, but may do so without asking how the disease impacts them.

“If you think only in terms of those people who are homosexual or those who are poor, then you always see HIV as being outside yourself. If you’re in western Europe and view HIV as the problem of those other people in the global south, then your response is always from a place of superiority.”

She offers herself as an example: “I do not fit the typical profile of someone at risk of HIV, but how vulnerable am I really? My husband and I both travel extensively and we have been married a long time. When we ask ourselves how that affects our vulnerability, then HIV is us.”

CABSA’s training programme takes a three-pronged approach to HIV, teaching facilitators about the virus and its transmission in a human body, the biblical response to disease, and practical measures to respond to the challenges of the pandemic. Of the more than 800 people trained in HIV competencies, a survey of just over 100 recently found their reach had extended in 2013 to nearly 55,000 people throughout not only southern Africa but other African countries and as far afield as Russia.

A church response to the pandemic – judge the problem, not the person

CABSA training focuses on people, more so than their actions. Knowing those factors that make people vulnerable and that limit their choices should be the Christian response to HIV, says Van Rooyen.

The biblical principal that everyone is created in the image of God underlies CABSA devotions and training.

Moreover, the programme’s success is measured in more than numbers. CABSA talked about hope long before medicine was available: not only hope in the afterlife but that in the absence of medication, people living with the virus still had meaning in their lives.

“The New Testament talks of Christ being ‘God with us,’ and the way in which we then can be the presence of God for others, the way we can assist in healing a broken world. We hear wonderful stories of hope. I’ve heard more theology in shacks of people living with HIV than in all the books I’ve read,” she says.

In the days before medication, she was in a hut with a man lying on the floor, dying. “I asked him how he was. His response was, ‘God is good.’ I still can’t get my head around that.”

CABSA brings hope to people who have otherwise lost every trace of it. “People say I’ve been diagnosed, I will die. But we say that if you get the disease under control, you will see your grandchildren. We’re bringing hope from a medical perspective but also a biblical perspective and a hope that God sees you and values you in the midst of disease.”

As a consequence of the fact that HIV runs along the fault lines of society, many factors play a role in its transmission, such as gender inequality and social instability resulting from war or migration. People most at risk of these circumstances are correspondingly most at risk of HIV. And dealing with this is a matter of justice, to which the church must respond, Van Rooyen says.

Out-dated thinking hinders HIV campaigns

Yet barriers from the church remain. Arguments about disease being the punishment for sin, with sexual disease the worst of all, prevail. The idea abounds that the man makes decisions for the family, that women must submit to husbands – even abusive husbands, and that it is not the role or place of women to question their husbands’ behaviour. The simplistic “Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms” campaign is inadequate. “An unhealthy mix of culture and theology can bring very damaging results,” she says.

More than ever, CABSA needs funds to keep going. Van Rooyen wants to see a faith presence at June’s South Africa AIDS conference, which is the springboard to the International AIDS Conference in Durban next year.

CABSA also contends with the fact that the “slow-wave” HIV pandemic has receded in the mind of the public, yet still 1000 new infections are reported each day in South Africa alone, exacting a cost for long-term treatment that even many developed countries would struggle to meet.

The pandemic, now in its fourth decade, is as critical as ever but, sadly, more easily dismissed. Training and education remain an inexpensive and effective means of defying the disease’s hold on society.

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Minister Tests Archbishop, Shaikh’s Status as Part of HIV-programme. 23/10/15

Published at

Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on Wednesday tested the HIV status of vice-president of the Moslem Judicial Council, Shaikh Achmat Sedick, at the launch of the Religious HIV Counselling and Testing (HCT) Programme, an initiative of the National Religious Association for Social Development (NRASD)Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on Wednesday tested the HIV status of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Dr Thabo Makgoba as well as that of the vice-president of the Moslem Judicial Council, Shaikh Achmat Sedick.

The event formed part of the launch of the Religious HIV Counselling and Testing (HCT) Programme, where more than 40 of South Africa’s pre-eminent churchleaders had their HIV-status tested. It took place at the Southern Sun, OR Tambo.

Other important religious figures who participated, included Rev. Frank Chikane (SA Council of Churches), Archbishop Dr Zandisile Magxwalisa (Jerusalem Church in South Africa), Archbishop Jabulani Nxumalo (Roman Catholic Church), Rev. Mukondeleli Ramulondi (Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa), The Most Revd Bishop Lunga ka Siboto (Ethiopian Episcopal Church), Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa (Methodist Church of Southern Africa/SACC), Prof Mary-Anne Plaatjies Van Huffel (Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa), Dr David Phaladi Tswaedi (Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa) and Rev. Cornelis Janse van Rensburg (Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa).

Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on Wednesday tested the HIV status of vice-president of the Moslem Judicial Council, Shaikh Achmat Sedick, at the launch of the Religious HIV Counselling and Testing (HCT) Programme, an initiative of the National Religious Association for Social Development (NRASD)

Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on Wednesday tested the HIV status of Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Dr Thabo Makgoba, at the launch of the Religious HIV Counselling and Testing (HCT) Programme, an initiative of the National Religious Association for Social Development (NRASD).

Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on Wednesday tested the HIV status of Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Dr Thabo Makgoba, at the launch of the Religious HIV Counselling and Testing (HCT) Programme, an initiative of the National Religious Association for Social Development (NRASD).

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Churches a Good Place for HIV Testing, Treatment in Africa. 21/10/2015

Published at medline Plus

Written by Robert Preidt

14 October  2015


HealthDay news image Worldwide, about 87 percent of pregnant women with HIV and more than 90 percent of children with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to UNAIDS, a United Nations health care program that targets HIV and AIDS.

Researchers found that pregnant women in hard-to-reach and rural areas of Nigeria who were offered prenatal screening for diseases such as HIV, malaria and syphilis at a monthly church-run baby shower (part of a program called the Healthy Beginning Initiative) were 11 times more likely to get tested for HIV than those who were encouraged to get routine HIV testing at local health facilities.

Even though simple, inexpensive and highly effective treatments to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV are becoming more available, one-third of HIV-infected women do not start treatment during pregnancy, resulting in about 210,000 new HIV infections in children every year worldwide.

Poor access to HIV screening is one reason for that, according to the researchers.

"Most pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa access HIV screening through the health care system. But in many countries like Nigeria, only a third of deliveries take place in hospitals and less than 3 percent of health care facilities have established services for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission," said study author Dr. Echezona Ezeanolue, an associate professor in the School of Medicine and Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"We have been looking for new ways to reach out and offer sustainable community-based testing programs to pregnant women, to eliminate new HIV infections among children," he said in a journal news release.

The researchers focused on churches because faith-based groups are highly influential in Africa.

 Most communities in sub-Saharan Africa have at least one religious center, even when there are no accessible health facilities. Our findings show that simple, culturally adapted, faith-based programs such as the Healthy Beginning Initiative can effectively increase the uptake of HIV testing among pregnant women in resource-limited settings," Ezeanolue said.

In a related commentary, Dr. Benjamin Chi and Dr. Elizabeth Stringer, from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said the study "provides an evidence-based blueprint for how churches and health clinics can collaborate to produce measurable programmatic benefits. By extending such strategies from HIV testing to long-term adherence and retention, these programs can further deliver on their promise and meaningfully contribute to the elimination of pediatric HIV in the region."


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Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance re-established under World Council of Churches. 9/3/2015

Published at WCC
6 March 2015

The World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) have agreed to re-establish the EAA as the WCC’s ecumenical initiative, preserving the future of this diverse Christian network for international action on selected, focused issues.

“The WCC is very happy to announce the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is to become a WCC ecumenical initiative,” said Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC. “The EAA and the WCC leadership worked together to find the means to continue the EAA’s unique network and advocacy approach in a more sustainable structural form.”

Over the past 14 years, the EAA has brought together Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Orthodox churches and Christian organizations to address campaigns on focused issues. Designed as an organization meant to maximize the impact of faith-based voices and action for justice, the EAA has built a high level of recognition for Christian expertise and advocacy, particularly in the areas of HIV and AIDS, sustainable agriculture and food security. However, like many other faith-based and civil society organizations, it has faced financial challenges over the last several years leading to discussions among its members and partners on the most effective use of financial resources.

“We are delighted that the EAA’s diverse network and unique ecumenical advocacy approach can continue to help churches and Christian organizations to speak out with one voice and take action together for justice, health and dignity,” said Rev. Dr Richard Fee, chair of the EAA board of directors and general secretary of the Life and Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. “The EAA has proven itself an effective model for ecumenical advocacy, and we are delighted that the WCC can host this precious ecumenical space for the mutual benefit of all those involved.”

“The EAA was founded on the principle that the more we can speak and act together, the stronger our impact for justice will be,” said Fee. “This is a fundamental ecumenical principle which the EAA has developed creatively and effectively for over a decade. Clearly, the need for people of faith to speak out against injustice remains as vital as ever, and together we can strengthen our witness for peace, security and dignity,” Fee concluded.

“This is one concrete way for the World Council of Churches strategically to give leadership and play an important role as convenor for the ecumenical movement. I’m glad that we are able to develop the important work of the EAA into the WCC with a focus on sustainable agriculture and HIV and AIDS. The EAA will bring to WCC experience in collaborating on advocacy with its members,” said Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, the WCC’s associate general secretary.

The EAA was founded in December 2000 as an instrument for broad ecumenical cooperation in advocacy – both in terms of Christian traditions and in types of organizations. Participating organizations select two specific issues of global concern for focused campaigning over a four-year period. Since its establishment, the EAA has focused on HIV and AIDS. From 2009, its second focus has been on food security and sustainable agriculture.

The WCC housed the EAA administratively from its founding until 2009 when it became an independent association under Swiss law. Close collaboration continued between the two organizations, particularly through the campaign strategy groups with representatives from EAA members and partners.

EAA’s most recent efforts on HIV and AIDS have focused on access to treatment and advocacy to overcome stigma and discrimination, particularly through dialogue between religious leaders and people living with HIV.

The EAA has also developed a leadership role among faith-based and civil society advocates in negotiations concerning agriculture in United Nations Climate Change talks, as well as in international policy arenas in areas of food and nutrition security.


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Central African Republic: Sexual Violence Survivors’ Voices heard. 21/10/2015

Published at bmsworldmission

15 October 2015


“With the death of my father, my husband and my baby, I will never forget what happened to me. I wonder why I must continue to live.” These are the heart-breaking words from just one woman who contributed to BMS supported research on sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in the Central African Republic (CAR).

The study, carried out in April and May 2015, was the first into sexual violence in CAR since the crisis began, and uncovered some of the challenges faced by survivors and what leaders need to do in order to stop these horrific acts of violence. Perhaps, more importantly, it gave a voice to women whose story might otherwise remain untold.

 “To date, no one else has mapped the testimonies of these brave women who have been horribly degraded as a result of the war in the Central African Republic,” says Steve Sanderson, BMS Manager for Mission. “The report challenges the international community to play their part in helping CAR’s GBV survivors rebuild their lives.”

 Christian anti-Balaka militias and Muslim Seleka rebels were both responsible for atrocities during the recent conflict, according to the BBC. Thousands of Christians and Muslims were killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced. While there has been a ceasefire, the conflict continues today. The prevalence of sexual violence has been exacerbated due to its use in the conflict as a weapon of war.

BMS and Tearfund worked together on the research into the extent of GBV and the impact it had on those who survived it. BMS supported the research as part of the Dignity initiative, which aims to put an end to GBV. It is also part of the pledge BMS has made as a founder member of We Will Speak Out, a global coalition committed to seeking faith based approaches come to the fore in tackling gender based violence.

Research into a subject as sensitive as this cannot be imposed from outside. It must take into account local needs and customs. So, The BMS and Tearfund study was undertaken in collaboration with local partners in CAR, consulting with heads of neighbourhoods, mayors, and religious leaders from different faith groups. A team of 12 Christian and Muslim female researchers were trained and put in contact with religious authorities to help them meet with survivors. Research was conducted in the capital Bangui and in the district of Begoua, and careful thought was put into conducting research sensitively, through discussion and support groups, providing counseling and ensuring anonymity.

The report highlights brutal survivor stories of SGBV, most too traumatising to relate here. Women from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds discussed the stigma of sexual violence, what would help them recover from their ordeal and what role faith communities could play in supporting them.

 Though these women have experienced horrible brutality, they manage to share their hopes for healing and visions for a better future. “It is difficult to talk about these experiences because it is shameful and dehumanises you as a human being,” says one woman from Begoua. “We need lots of prayers.” The report demonstrates that, to move forward with their lives, the women will need financial, medical, legal, psychosocial support, and an improved justice system. 

Results of the report, To Make Our Voices Heard, were released at a workshop on 9-11 September 2015. It brought faith leaders, government ministries, UN agencies, and other local and national representatives together to discuss the response to sexual violence in the conflict. For three days the group discussed findings of the research, studied teachings on sexual violence in Muslim and Christian religions, and created action plans to respond to sexual violence in CAR.

“The release of the report in Bangui a few weeks ago attracted widespread support from key decision makers on the ground,” says Steve Sanderson. “It is anticipated that we will bring the report into the view of the British and possibly French governments with a view to it influencing policy on transitional justice, peacebuilding and protection in Central Africa.”

BMS believes the voices of these brave women should ring loud and clear. We hope the release of this report will inspire a call to action by faith, government, and international leaders alike, to make every effort to end sexual violence in Central African Republic and around the world.


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National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS 2015. 9/3/2015

Published at POZ
4 March 2015

This week, from March 1 to March 8, marks the 2015 National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS (NWPHA). The annual HIV awareness campaign mobilizes communities of faith and is organized by the Balm in Gilead Inc., a nonprofit group that works to improve the health of African-American and African congregations.

The campaign’s goal, according to the NWPHA website, “is to strengthen the capacity of our nation’s faith communities to influence social norms and thereby contribute to the prevention of HIV disease and provide compassionate support to those who are affected.”

The website includes downloadable toolkits, community planning guides, family prayer guides and scriptural references for both Christian and Islamic communities.

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Zimbabwe: Faith Healing Puts Young People Living with HIV at Risk. 21/10/2015

Published at Key Correspondents.Org

Written by Samantha Nyamayedenga

12 October 2015


Faith healing can have a huge impact on adolescents living with HIV with many defaulting on their medications after being told they have been healed spiritually. 

Imagine you are on lifelong antiretroviral treatment and suddenly you are assured you do not have to worry about treatment any longer. You have been taking medication that raises a lot of eyebrows, so much so that sometimes you are not confident to take it in public. Imagine being told that your struggle can come to an end: all you have to do is have faith and you are healed. Would you say ‘no’ to such an opportunity? 

Being an adolescent itself is a piece of work, dealing with the physical and emotional changes which happen during this time. Living with a chronic ailment such as HIV imposes an extra burden. Maintaining adherence to antiretroviral drugs at this stage can be difficult because of fear of stigma and drug side effects. Adolescent life is filled with many activities and the responsibility of having to take medication every day at the same time can be burdensome. Therefore there is a chance that adolescents living with HIV will accept the easiest way possible to make them free from medication. This is where faith healing comes into play.


Defaulting on medication 

Africaid is an organisation in Zimbabwe that has been supporting children and adolescents living with HIV, to help keep them safe and confident, since 2004. Counsellors for Africaid have seen how adolescents living with HIV have stopped taking their antiretroviral drugs after being promised that they have been healed by religious prophets or traditional healers.

“I am not sure about the specific statistics of children who have defaulted under Africaid’s Zvandiri programme. However I can assure you that some of our children have defaulted on their medication due to faith healing,” says Charity Maruva, who is one of the Africaid Zvandiri counsellors.

Edna (not her real name), a peer counsellor from Harare, Zimbabwe, spoke about cases of faith healing she had come across, when providing psychosocial support to peers living with HIV.

She spoke of children who were forced into faith healing by family members. “Some of these children are being taken to different religious cults, at one time, in order for them to be healed. Their conditions are deteriorating day by day, each time I pay a visit to some of them,” Edna says. 


Take and believe 

Another counsellor, who asked not to be named, spoke about the impact of faith healing on some of the children within support groups. She spoke of how Africaid lost beneficiaries due to HIV-related illnesses caused by non-adherence. 

In 2010, the organisation embarked on a campaign to address non-adherence caused by faith healing. The counsellor says: “The name of the campaign was ‘Take and Believe’. After some of our children died, we carried out discussions in all our support groups.

“We encouraged the children to continue taking their medication even after being healed. We also discussed that the coming of antiretroviral drugs itself was a miracle from God. Therefore they should take their medication and believe that they are being healed by God through antiretrovirals.” 


Science versus faith

 However Emmanuel Ranganai, a youth leader of a Christian church in Harare, Zimbabwe, believes that science is at war with faith and that what seems real to a person of faith might seem unrealistic to a person of science. He said faith healing had once cured him of an asthmatic condition. Emmanuel however emphasises that faith healing depends on each individual and cannot be taken as a national practice.

He says that before a person stops his medication, he should confirm that he has been healed with a doctor. “You know in the Bible, when people suffering from leprosy were healed, they were told by Jesus to go and show themselves to the priest. It still remains the same. If you know that you have been healed go and confirm with the doctor.”


Working with faith communities

 It is vital to make sure that adolescents living with HIV are getting the right information about the importance of adhering to their medication. Without this, faith healing will continue to have a negative impact, if the young person believes they can stop taking antiretroviral drugs.

In order to do this, organisations involved in the HIV response need to work with churches to get the right information across. UNAIDS is strengthening its partnership with faith-based organisations and is encouraging young people living with HIV to take leadership roles in local faith communities and find ways to challenge misconceptions about HIV*. The World Council of Churches has also called for churches to provide accurate information about HIV and AIDS.

In Zimbabwe, Africaid is working with local churches to address the issue. Charity Maruva says: “At the moment, we are carrying out campaigns in church and making videos with church leaders who encourage viewers to go for testing. We are also carrying out campaigns in schools and are developing information materials and pamphlets to educate adolescents on treatment.”


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Renewing our commitment to “a faith that does justice”. 9/3/2015

Published at AJAN

AIDS is first and foremost an urgent challenge to social justice rather than a merely medical problem. 

This was the main message of the director of AJAN, Fr Paterne Mombe SJ, to Jesuits gathered in Nairobi from 18 to 22 February for a seminar on justice. The Jesuit Africa Social Centres Network (JASCNET) organized the seminar that was entitled Justice as characteristic of all Jesuit apostolates: renewing our commitment to a faith that does justice.

Fr Paterne said AIDS has made a preferential option for the poor and that many of those who are affected count among the most marginalised of our communities.

Jesuits and their co-workers reach out to those affected in some 20 sub-Saharan African countries, offering a package of services and facilitating access to the necessary care and treatment that people living with HIV need to live life to the full – the vision of AJAN.

Among the key initiatives underlined by Fr Paterne, we find promoting economic self-reliance through income generating activities and ensuring equal opportunities by helping orphans and vulnerable children to access education, vocational training, counselling and food. 

Fr Paterne also outlined the work of AJAN in regional advocacy that is focused on three thematic areas: researching access to essential medical care; sexual and gender-based violence; orphans and vulnerable children.

JASCNET issued a press statement summing up the conclusions of the seminar that we re-publish here in full:

Justice is integral to the living out of our Christian faith and Jesuit identity. Therefore, justice should permeate all our works and apostolates.

More and more people find themselves living on the margins of our world because of the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The Society of Jesus in Africa recognises the urgent need for a collaborative and strategic response from all its ministries as we continue to work for justice.

Under the auspices of the JESAM Social Apostolate Coordinator, a meeting was held in Nairobi, Kenya from 20-21 February 2015. Jesuits representing a number of works of the Society of Jesus - including Jesuit education, formation houses, parishes, chaplaincies, the apostleship of pray and HIV/AIDS ministry – gathered from all over the continent to share their experiences and reflect on how social justice is a key constituent of our mission and apostolic endeavours in Africa today.

Inspired by General Congregations (GC), from 32 to 35, we recognise the urgent need to overcome what Pope Francis has called “the globalisation of indifference.” We do this by ensuring that we form men and women who are sensitive to the needs of others - most especially the needs of the poor and marginalised.

We recognise that:

  • there will be no peace, stability, security and growth in Africa unless there is justice
  • all our works and apostolates must be concerned about the plight of millions of marginalised people in all forms on our continent
  • faith and justice is a key ingredient and permeate all works of the Society of Jesus in Africa
  • we cannot be silent and have to face the daily plight of our people: poverty, war, economic injustice, political corruption, disease and the lack of basic services
  • we have not always collaborated well between different ministry sectors and apostolates on the continent.

We therefore commit to:

  • renew our commitment to a faith that does justice and live with greater fervour GCs 32 to 35
  • heed the call of Pope Francis to be a “Church of poor” (Evangelii Gaudium #198) and combat the “globalisation of indifference” (Evangelii Gaudium #54) and realise its consequences for us in our communities and apostolates
  • not being afraid of the ever increasing challenges that require new and bold initiatives from us which will require that we return to our heritage, the Spiritual Exercises, to articulate the best way forward
  • strengthen our networks, especially in regions, so that we can respond more collaboratively and effectively to the many injustices we identify in our work in Africa today
  • ensure that young Jesuits, in our houses of formation, are well formed to promote a faith that does justice
  • find ways of sharing our resources more effectively within and across different sectors of ministry
  • seek ways of greater collaboration between all sectors and works (i.e. education, parishes, social centres, HIV/AIDS ministry, chaplaincies, apostolate of prayer, institutes and movements etc.) so that we ensure a synergy within the works in which faith and justice is the key constituent
  • strengthen collaboration with other religious and lay people so that our work of promoting a faith that does justice is shared
  • ensure that when Jesuits move to new works there is continuity and that the component of a faith that does justice is not lost

At the end of the meeting a number of recommendations were made to the JESAM Social Apostolate Coordinator for consideration by him and the JESAM leadership:

  • find ways of returning to the spiritual sources, most especially the Spiritual Exercises, so that we are renewed in our option for the poor and in promoting justice
  • explore practical ways in which we can create a synergy around the work of faith and justice across Jesuit ministries in Africa
  • collect stories of pioneers in works of faith and justice around the continent whose stories have not been recorded
  • find ways of being more in touch with the reality of the poor – being with them
  • allow ourselves to be empowered by Pope Francis, his affection for the poor and vulnerable and his vision for the Church, by studying documents written by him – documents like Evangelli Gaudium
  • increase our efforts to collaborate with others – clergy/religious and lay people – so that we can learn from them and also borrow best practices
  • find ways of increasing our inter-sectorial collaboration in provinces and in regions
  • find ways of increasing our inter-provincial collaboration – starting at regional level
  • find ways of looking beyond ourselves and current collaborators (perhaps to NGO’s and other like-minded organisations) so as to draw more people into our mission of a faith that does justice
  • review our strategy and not be afraid to change what needs change so that, for example, we do not lose brothers after ordination

The Society of Jesus in Africa renews its commitment to “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted.” (Gaudium et Spes #1) We do this because “these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et Spes #1) today. It is our expressed desire to follow Christ wherever we find ourselves ministering today.

The Jesuits of Africa are renewed and inspired and recognised that “the struggle for justice has a progressive and gradually unfolding historic character, as it confronts the changing needs of specific peoples, cultures, and times.” (GC 43 d3 54.5) In this moment of history we confront the needs of our peoples, cultures and times.

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A Call to Action by Religious Leaders and Champions in Support of the Fast Track Agenda Towards Ending the AIDS Epidemic in Eastern and Southern Africa

Developed by INERELA+



We, the religious leaders and champions from 18 Eastern and Southern Africa countries gathered at the Kundunchi Beach Hotel in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania on the 2nd to the 4th of September 2015. We met to deliberate on the fast track agenda for accelerated implementation of the response to the AIDS epidemic. We acknowledge that: 

We are endowed with social capital in our communities; 

We have a responsibility to uphold human dignity and protect life; 

People look to us for love, compassion acceptance and holistic support; 

We acknowledge that important strides have been made to address the HIV epidemic; there has been a significant reduction of new HIV infections in most countries; substantial increase in the numbers of people who know their HIV status; an increase in access to HIV treatment and in domestic financing for the HIV response. However, we are concerned that the region continues to bear a high HIV burden particularly among young girls and women. Key populations have not been fully integrated within our faith sector response. Sexual and gender based violence continue to affect families. Inequality persists in access to treatment especially for children. And too many people living with HIV continue to experience stigma and discrimination. 

We fully support the fast track targets and commit to advocate for robust action and sustained funding for the HIV response and actively participate in implementing targeted and effective programmes. We will partner with our governments to implement the fast track agenda. We will hold ourselves, our governments and development partners accountable to invest in expanded access to HIV testing and ART for all in need. We will mobilize our religious communities to take up voluntary HIV testing and help people stay on treatment. We will support through our health networks national efforts to scale up of HIV prevention and treatment services including SRHR services. We further commit to implement proven intervention in support to those who are HIV negative, comprehensive sexuality education and SRH services. 

We affirm that all human beings are equal before God and should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of age, gender and sexual orientation. We commit to engage all stakeholders at local, national, regional and global levels to address stigma and discrimination and scale up programs, resources and strategies to attain the fast track targets. We will take action to address misinterpretation of religion, culture and sacred texts that hinder the HIV response 

We call upon all faith based organisations, religious and traditional leaders, civil society organisations, United Nation System, all government agencies and regional economic entities to implement the fast track agenda on HIV and AIDS in order to attain 90-90-90 targets by 2020. We believe that these are the necessary steps needed to create a transformative society, achieve zero new HIV infections and zero stigma and are essential for sustainability. 

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Rev. Phumzile Mabizela: Woman, Church Leader, HIV Positive. 6/3/2015

Published at Bulalat
Written by Janess Ellao
2 March 2015

Phumzile-by jae

MANILA – When Reverend Phumzile Mabizela, a church leader from South Africa, learned she contracted HIV, she was very devastated. Though she is a gender activist and was knowledgeable about the condition, contracting HIV, she said, was not something one would celebrate. But it was neither her own health nor what other people might think of her that worried her – it was her family.

Mabizela said she made sure that her children were well-informed about what HIV is before she disclosed it. They understood her condition and told her that they love her no matter what. But telling her mother was a different story.

“For my mother, my only living parent, it took much longer for me to disclose to her,” she told

“I thought that she will give me a very long lecture – ‘you are a minister. You should have behaved, ra, ra, ra…’ But I was surprised to find that she was very positive about it. And actually said ‘we thank God that you were tested early cause that means that we will still have you for a very, long time,’” she quoted her mother.

Her family, she said, has been her greatest support.

Mabizela, the executive director of interfaith network INARELA+, is among those who have publicly announced that they are living with HIV. It was 1999 and she was applying for a life cover when she learned that she has contracted the virus.

“I applied for a life cover. And when you apply for a life cover, you have to be tested so they can assess the risks. That’s when I was tested. I had no symptoms, none,” she said.

Today, Mabizela has traveled around the world, educating both men and women on their vulnerabilities to HIV. Even her mother, who she feared would not have an easy time accepting her condition, too, has spoken to mothers of those who have contracted HIV and helped them deal with their children’s condition.

Most countries, she said, now have access to HIV treatment. The most advanced technology belongs to Western countries such as in the US, Canada and European countries. In poorer countries, however, sustaining such treatments is hard, which poses danger to people living with HIV as they become vulnerable to developing resistance to the medication.

Still, there are countries who do not even have access to technology for testing people with HIV, said Mabizela.

Mabizela stressed that it is the government’s responsibility to provide due medical services for people living with HIV.

“It evolves. There are always new challenges that we need to respond to,” she said, “The battle is not over. We need to find creative ways of accessing resources.”

The government, she added, should come up with ways to bring resources to the people and churches can be instrumental in this because “they are everywhere.”

Last month, Mabizela went to the Philippines to conduct a dialogue with church workers on her advocacy for people living with HIV. Below is part of’s interview with Mabizela:

What were the pros and cons when you decided to announce that you have contracted HIV?

You have to be prepared for a variety of responses. Some of my friends became very emotional. They started crying because they were scared that they would lose me. So I had to assure them that (it is manageable). As I have said, I have never experienced stigma. But some people go through that. So it is important for people to know the pros and cons of disclosing before they do it. So they would be prepared to deal with the positive and the negative responses.

Do you get irritated with people who are not educated on HIV discriminate against those who have?

I don’t. I feel sorry for them because they should know. And usually these are the people who are most vulnerable. The fact that they are prepared to reject you, it means that they are ignorant; they are not well informed on HIV.

What do you think is the role of the Church on how to combat or help people living with HIV?

The church was part of the problem so it is important for them now to be part of the solution. Some of the language that they used when HIV started coming to our country was very negative. And most people died because of fears of being rejected by their churches. But now, with the church deciding to become part of the solution, they are learning new theological reflections, new ways of life-giving sermons.

Therefore, I feel that we have a moral obligation as a church to actually change our messages of death, of suffering to messages of hope and life.

“Was” means that it was in the past. Can you give examples on how the Church used to be part of the problem?

It was the sermons, some of the teachings that they had, which exclude people from communion because they were living with HIV. And people who had symptoms like rashes were excluded from communion.

But the when priests were well informed, they were welcomed to the church and were able to participate in the communion.

What are the more proactive ways for the Church to help and reach out?

The first one is to make the Church a safe place for us, where people know that it does not matter what their status is. They will feel accepted and included in the Church. And once you do that, there will be enthusiasm to be tested because they know that they will not be discriminated against or rejected.

Secondly, the teachings of the church cannot ignore issues that are affecting people. The church has to be relevant and talk about issues that affect the people. So people can make sure that they get accurate information.

How can civil society groups be of help?

I find that civil society groups are more open to this, they are more accepting. The challenge was some of the teachings of the churches. Civil society groups are more outspoken in the conditions of people living with HIV. The church sooner realized that they have to change the way they should respond to HIV.

CSOs have challenged the government. It is the people themselves who are living with HIV that has to keep the government aware of their needs. So that governments can develop programs that would meet their needs.

Here, there’s still a strong stigma against PLHIV. They are blamed for it. Is it true for other countries?

Oh, yes. But it is slowly changing. The more people communicate with PLHIV, the more they realize that there are solutions. You can’t assume that because someone is living with HIV, it is because of their promiscuity.

Educating the people, it is very important. And we can do it in creative ways.

And even if it was a result of their promiscuity…

We should not judge. We are all sinners. That’s another problem that the Church has created. Because sex is the biggest sin, as far as the Church is concerned. Yet there are so many things that people are doing.

What is the challenge for someone like you who lives openly with HIV?

I’m not getting any younger. So HIV and aging are huge issues. It comes with other disadvantages and issues that one needs to deal with. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, I have been on treatment for quite sometime now. And getting access to treatments is a challenge. That’s why I have been saying that even when people are tested positive, they still need support because there are other issues they need to deal with.

How would you compare 1999 and now? As far as HIV is concerned.

We have come a long way. The levels of awareness are very high. People are getting more supportive. People know how to protect themselves. People are aware of advantages and disadvantages, how to prevent transmission, and scientifically, I believe that we are very close to getting a cure.

Because people continue to do research. And I strongly believe we will get a cure. Maybe not today, maybe in five or 10 years time. There was a time when flu was a killer. But scientists continue to do research until they got a cure for flu. It should be the same for this virus, which just need to continue our work. Be patient. Be proactive. And we will get there.

You have travelled around the globe with this advocacy. What have you learned from the people you have met?

One of things is if there is a political will, countries can bring the prevalence down. But those governments who are reluctant to develop programs, that’s where HIV thrives, affects more people. It is not just developing policies. There has to be a political will to protect its citizens in those countries

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Can Christian Ethics Take Down Stigma and Bias Against Women With HIV? 26/02/2015

Published at the Body
Written by Ted Kerr
23 February 2015

As a panelist on "HIV/AIDS, Gender and Theo/Ethical Responsibility" at the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in Chicago, Nontando Hadebe, Ph.D., found herself deviating from her planned presentation on sub-Saharan Africa.

She needed to talk about unpublished research she'd seen. It showed how black lesbians in South Africa living with HIV -- who often are infected with HIV through rape -- are being denied pastoral help from churches claiming to be open to all people with the virus.

For queer women, lesbians and others who exist outside of female gender norms in South Africa, a common and violent mode of HIV transmission is corrective rape, also known as correctional rape. The South African activist group Lead SA defines corrective rape as "the rape of lesbians by men in order to [attempt to] turn them heterosexual, to make them 'act' more in conformity with gender stereotypes or to punish them for their homosexuality." Lead SA quotes the nonprofit organization Luleki Sizwe saying that "more than 10 gay women a week are raped or gang-raped in Cape Town alone."

Lesbians living with HIV, explained Hadebe, are "often dismissed as an impossibility." The violence and their experiences are ignored by social services and powerful "churches and theologians because of the imposed 'unethical' space they are deemed to be living in which disqualifies them from the resources of solidarity, ethical justice and compassionate ministry."

Hadebe was led to wonder, "Can gender analysis function as a liberating tool for all without exclusion of any?"

Jessica Whitbread (on left) and Martha Tholanah of International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS (ICW)

Jessica Whitbread of the International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS (ICW) says stigma and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation present a barrier to services and justice globally, even when sexual orientation is protected under the law.

"There is a difference between something being illegal by the books yet being morally criminalized within a society. Stigma is hard to claw back against."

Whitbread says the ICW sees women (whether transgender or cisgender, straight or queer) excluded from accessing health care services, and pushed out of community and friendship circles.

"Who wants to live in isolation?" she asks. "Stress is an indicator to poor health. If a core sense of being is not validated and seen as unethical it is really hard to exist in this world."

Worldwide, women currently account for over 50% of individuals living with HIV. According to the South African National HIV Survey 2012, an estimated 12.2% of the South African population (6.4 million persons) are living with HIV, a 1.6% increase from 2008, with over half of those living with HIV being women. But Whitbread notes that "gender and gender based violence -- such as correctional rape and the forced and coerced sterilization of women living with HIV -- is almost never talked about within the larger HIV response."

So what can the Society of Christian Ethics bring to the struggle for justice, and against stigma and discrimination in the global HIV epidemic? Rooted in thinking through ideas of "right relatedness" through the lens of Christianity, the Society of Christian Ethics reached its height of influence in the U.S. in 1948 when Reinhold Niebuhr -- one of the discipline's most famous practitioners -- graced the cover of Time magazine.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Christian ethicists began thinking through economics, the environment, race, gender and sexuality alongside the Christian teachings. Scholar-activists pushed the discipline forward, asserting that ethics must be formed through proactive support of the courageous witness found in the lives of the most marginalized, the naming and dismantling of oppressive structures and ongoing work for justice.

Dr. Traci West speaking in Chicago

One such leading scholar-activist is Traci West. On the panel with Hadebe, West was speaking to the Western religious context when she stated that raising awareness is no longer enough. U.S. scholars and activists "need to draw attention to the ways in which Christian politics of gender and sexuality help to foster the spread of HIV and AIDS."

For her, from the Society of Christian Ethics there "must be some direct, specific, attention to how violence, abuse, and coercion can combine with Christian politics of sexuality to induce shame and blame and deceit that undermines effective prevention strategies as well as support for persons who are infected with and affected by HIV."

Teresa Delgado, Ph.D., associate professor of religious studies at Iona College, put together the panel at the conference. She agrees there is a role for the Society of Christian Ethics to play in the ongoing HIV movement, specifically as it relates to women.

"As global citizens," she says, "we must continue to address the status of women in every culture and society, noting the specific ways in which the HIV/AIDS epidemic is allowed to proliferate when the cultural expectations around the role of women are not interrogated in both intimate and global terms."

Women in Rwanda (Credit: Donald E. Messer)

It is not up to individuals living with HIV to be less themselves. It is up to institutions and organizations -- like churches -- to be better at meeting the needs of those they say that they serve. One example of such an organization is the Mbwirandumva Initiative in Kigali, Rwanda, founded by Beatrice Mukansinga. The group does outreach trauma counseling for women, understanding that trauma can come from an HIV diagnosis as well as how the news is received by others.

In response to her own questions, Hadebe sees the trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost as a model that works. Difference is shared; and burdens, rewards and duties are distributed among three parts.

In the early days of the AIDS crisis, activists fought to have the opportunistic infections frequently seen in women included in the U.S. definition of AIDS, because women who did not have the AIDS diagnosis could be excluded from lifesaving services, benefits and research protocols -- resulting in unneeded suffering and premature death.

The work for lifesaving inclusion continues, including in faith communities and by Christian ethicists. What would it mean if a lesbian living with HIV was not deemed as impossible, unethical or unworthy of service, but rather was held in the same regard that the Holy Ghost holds for the Father and the Son?

Copyright © 2015 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.



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Pastor Who is Fighting HIV From The Pulpit. 21/09/2015

Published at Nation.

Written by Dorothy Kweyu

19 September 2015

Phumzile Mabizela, an ordained church minister






She’s a mother and an ordained minister, but that is not why I am awestruck when I am introduced to her by Rev Nyambura Njoroge of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

After all, women’s ordination has been around for a while — apart from the Catholic Church, which has maintained its absolute No stance against women priests.

So what is it about the South African cleric Phumzile Mabizela that would attract more than casual interest?

Rev Mabizela was recently in Kenya for a WCC consultation, where her mission included a public lecture at St Paul’s University on, “Sexuality, Spirituality and Sexual Violence: Politics of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Programme in the context of HIV”. That would have been bait enough to get me to Limuru, its inclement weather notwithstanding. However, the fact that Rev Mabizela is living with HIV, makes her story even more compelling.

Ugandan Anglican cleric Canon Gideon Byamugisha was the first religious leader to announce in 1992 that he was infected with the Aids-causing virus, demystifying the myth that clergy were immune to HIV. Ten years later, he co-founded the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected by HIV and Aids.

Rev Mabizela is executive director of Inerela+, the international version of the organisation.

The South African is the epitome of defiance, starting with her huge physique that belies the stereotypical skeletal images of people living with HIV, a fact she jokes about.

On this particular day, she is wearing black as are other delegates to the consultation, complete with a badge emblazoned, “Thursdays in Black: Towards a world without rape and violence.”

While she says during her public lecture that “most women who were living with HIV were either pressurised (sic) into sexual relationships or they were victims of sexual violence”, she refuses to be drawn into disclosing how she might have got infected. The cleric tested HIV-positive in 1999, hence the question about the cause of her infection and her reaction.

She says: “I didn’t want to go down that road because it wasn’t going to help me at all. My main concern was, how do I manage the virus and how do I continue living positively? I was a single mother of two children. That was another issue I had to deal with. How do I tell my children? How do I tell my parents? How do I tell my close family?”

It did not help that she had worked with Youth Alive and Youth for Christ ministries, both of which promote Christian virtues of chastity. “I cried a lot. I was angry. I did a lot of introspection and reflection asking, why would God choose me? I was very angry with God.”


The cleric was going through what she describes as “self-stigma”— struggling to accept her status.

“The second issue is all the negative things that are said about people living with HIV. The assumption is that you’re promiscuous. With religious leaders, it’s even worse. ‘What business do you have getting HIV?’ because you are not supposed to be human. We are superhuman. These are the challenges we have to deal with,” she says.

She later reckoned that “there must be a reason why I ended up with HIV”. Rev Mabizela adds: “I’m beginning to understand it now because of the platforms I’ve been exposed to, which I don’t think I’d have had if I hadn’t chosen to be open, because it wasn’t easy to openly talk about HIV.”

Going public has helped her live a fulfilling life, “because I don’t have this fear of people finding out that I’m living with HIV. I live my life and I’m fully involved in my ministry and the people I work with know what my status is.”

Fulfilling, but also chequered, aptly describe the life of the widow, who was born Catholic, joined the Salvation Army and is now Presbyterian. The cleric previously worked for the Norwegian Church Aid as senior policy adviser on gender justice in Southern Africa and CEO of KwaZulu Natal Christian Council.

She was commissioned (ordained) in the Salvation Army in 1988. “It has been a long journey,” says the churchwoman, who describes herself as “very ecumenical”, having been exposed to the mainline churches, the pentecostals and the presbyterians.

Her older children are 30 and 25. She also has a 13-year-old daughter with the man she met and married in 2001 after she started living openly with HIV. The widow does not know whether or not her husband was HIV-positive.

“He didn’t know his status, but when I tell my story, I don’t talk about his status,” she says.

So, how easy or difficult was it for the Salvation Army to commission a single mother? The church did not know about her marital status, but gaining acceptance in her husband’s Presbyterian Church was a struggle. They were unsure about accepting her Salvation Army training although she had also studied theology at university, which she joined at the age of 31.

“When they combined the two, they decided that I could be accepted as a minister,” she says.

The cleric, who says she joined the Presbyterian Church to honour her husband, is aware that travelling all over the world and “saying the things that I do”— like championing the rights of unwed mothers and their children — does not sit well with her church.

She notes, however, that Inerela+ groups religious leaders in their individual capacity, not as representatives of their respective religions, which include Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

Inerela+ was founded in 2002 by eight religious leaders, including the Rev Mabizela. Its membership is about 10,000. The umbrella network  started with Africans, “but when the global community learned about our core business, which is fighting against stigma and discrimination, they invited us. They said that we, as religious leaders, also need a support network like this. That is how it became international in 2008.”

Inerela+ has 15 country networks in Africa, including Kenya’s Kenerela. It envisages a world without new infections; with zero stigma and discrimination and with zero Aids-related deaths. The network seeks to empower religious leaders living with HIV by teaching them skills to open up discussions on HIV from a faith or religious perspective.

Their stories give people hope that it is possible to live positively for a long time and become ambassadors of change by keeping up-to-date on matters of policy and research. Because most of them have been on treatment for some time, they can support those starting treatment and are struggling with issues of side-effects, for instance.


“I think most people are under the impression that it (HIV and Aids) is no longer an issue. The reality is that it has become a silent pandemic because people are struggling with the side-effects and they find it difficult to adhere because treatment is a life-long commitment. Some, out of fatigue, just decide to stop taking drugs, and their lives deteriorate,” she says.

The second issue is that boys and men get tested very late, and by the time they start taking medication, either the body does not respond to it or they develop resistance.

She faults the global message that all is well; that everybody is on treatment now; and that we should move on to other issues.

“When you get closer to families and people who are affected, things are getting worse,” the cleric says.

She issues a terse warning against emerging complacency regarding the pandemic which could take the world back to “the (19)80s when people were dying like flies”.

The Inerela+ boss’s rallying call for the faith community is that they cannot afford to put their foot on the brakes as “the battle is not over”.

“There are still lots of people who cannot talk about it (HIV/Aids). There is also the issue of gender inequality, which makes women vulnerable,” she says, adding that non-compliance with medication is a big problem.

And then there are the side-effects of antiretrovirals (ARVs), which she has had to deal with, and describes as “a huge issue”— including depression. The solution sometimes includes taking anti-depressants or changing the medication.  

Her advise is to understand the kind of medication instead of “suffering in silence, so that when you are constantly depressed and you don’t know what the problem is, it’s very easy to say, ‘this is not helping me’, and stop taking medication.”

Rev Mabizela describes it as “a constant journey of reflecting and investigating”.

And in an apparent call for humility on the part of medical doctors, the cleric points out that medics are not always as good as they think they are. “Some of us,” she says, “have to do the research ourselves and go to doctors and tell them, ‘this is what we’ve found out. This is how the medication affects us. What is the possibility of moving to another kind of medication?’ It’s quite a burden,” she says.

The cleric hurls a huge barb at the so-called faith-healers, who discourage people living with HIV from taking medication. She gives the example of some faithful, who go to various churches, only to be told, ‘Stop taking your medication because you are healed; we have prayed for you’. Others give the faith water or the faith oil or whatever else they have prayed for, she says.

“As a faith community, we have to take the issue (of faith-healing) seriously and challenge religious people who are telling people to stop taking their antiretroviral treatment. I believe that the ARVs are a gift from God,” she says.


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Health Care and Religion in South Africa and Beyond 27/08/2015

Published at Huffington Post

Written by Katherine Marshall

22 August 2015

Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the HIV/AIDS pandemic a "new apartheid" on a global scale. The virus, he said, works in a close alliance with poverty, ignorance, complacency, discrimination, and inequity. Its devastating impact is felt in every country, in every community, in every corner of the globe--but its impact is greatest in areas where inequality rules.

This passionate appeal to a sense of justice grounded in an ethic of fairness is vintage Tutu. But it was less predictable that Tutu's appeal and religious voice would be invoked by South Africa's Health Minister, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi. But indeed it was. The minister echoed Tutu's appeal, calling for far more engagement between religious and secular bodies. Noone, he said, should forget that it was faith communities that provided support to those who were affected and infected by HIV and AIDS, providing food, love, care, and concern, at the start and at the end.

We will hear much over the next month about the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the United Nations General Assembly is expected to bless in late September. The goals represent a global agenda but still more a promise, and universal health care is a centerpiece. Huge disparities in health care are among the most blatant inequities in a globalized world where technology delivers stunning promise, but at a cost that few can afford. Diseases like HIV and AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and Ebola are clearly on the map but non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension cardio-vascular diseases, and cancer are increasing at a tremendous pace in every part of the world. The new goal aspires to a comprehensive approach to health.

Dr. Motsoaledi was speaking in Cape Town, South Africa in late June to a diverse international group, the Ahimsa Round Table (a multisectoral gathering linking social entrepreneurs and faith-linked health care providers, that I and the World Faiths Development Dialogue - WFDD - helped to organize). In recalling the complex history of church leaders and communities confronting the AIDS crisis, he was making a broader point: "The role of faith-based organiaations in healing, caring, and providing the most basic necessities in our lives, has always been part of our lives, and I dare say, will be part of our lives for ever and ever."

Governments alone clearly cannot meet all the health challenges and needs of the populations in any country, the health minister argued. Partnerships must be central and that means a critical role for faith-inspired organizations. Those roles need to be aligned with the priorities reflected in the new SDGs.

So what should those roles be? In the lead-up to the UN meetings, that's a key question. Here are the minister's suggestions:

1. All faith-inspired organizations should support access to universal health care, meaning that every human being has the right to access to good quality and affordable health care. Access should not be dependent on the socio-economic condition of the individual. And health is not just access to a hospital in moments of dire need. "Health (according to the 1978 WHO Alma-Ata Declaration) is not just the absence of diseases, but it the state of good physical, mental and social wellbeing. The attainment of the highest standard of health is the most important world-wide social goal, whose attainment needs action from all sectors."
2. Faith-inspired communities should deal with the challenges of stigma - especially discrimination in relation to HIV and AIDS, TB, Leprosy, or albinism.
3. Faith-inspired organizations play a crucial role in palliative care - the end of life care - for those who are having chronic diseases that cannot be cured, especially if there is a rise in diseases like cancer and all other diseases that are difficult to cure or incurable.
4. Faith-inspired organizations help to spread the message of a healthy lifestyle - "which is the only affordable way to deal with non-communicable diseases of lifestyle, which are exploding in every nation around the world". We must encourage people to focus on healthy eating, physical exercise - and stop bad habits like smoking, "whilst reducing the consumption of alcohol."
5. Faith-inspired organizations should play an important role in reducing inter-personal violence in society - including abuse of women and children. Supporting the destitute, those who do not have homes, is also part of the work of faith-inspired organizations - which they have done successful in the past - that should continue.
6. Faith-inspired organizations can help governments in caring for the poor, giving dignity to the poor and assist the destitute.

This offers a wonderful and sensible to do list. The next challenge is to translate these insights and ideals into practical programs, addressing the myriad institutional challenges that include, of course, finance. But the message is clear: faith-inspired organizations are key players in the health sector and meaningful partnerships can strengthen their role in empowering communities around the world, bringing much needed relief to those who need it most. 

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Ordained pastors living with HIV/AIDS. 26/02/2015.

Published at
Written by MA. Ceres P. Doyo
5 June 2013

In this age of public disclosures of personal matters by well-known personalities, it still comes as a surprise—discomfiting, but also profoundly moving—for church persons in responsible positions to come out to disclose they are HIV-positive.

Here in the Philippines are two esteemed visitors, Reverend Canon Dr. Gideon Byamugisha of Uganda and Reverend Rosemary Phumzile Mabizela of South Africa. Both are positive for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) that could lead to the life-threatening AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

Both are outspoken advocates for the removal of the stigma attached to persons living with HIV/AIDS. Both remain in active service in their churches and in HIV/AIDS-related international campaigns. Both are still here in the Philippines as guests of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines’ Cosmopolitan Church in Manila.

I was fortunate and honored to have met the two advocates, along with Elijah Fung of a Hong Kong-based HIV education center at a forum last Monday. Fung is in touch with overseas Filipino workers in Hong Kong.

HIV/AIDS, which first burst into the medical scene in the 1980s, has long been associated—often erroneously—only with irresponsible sexual behavior and drug use through syringes when in fact there are a number of other ways of transmitting and contracting the virus. This had added to the stigma attached to being HIV-positive. Before potent drugs to tame the virus were discovered, having HIV was a death sentence. Not anymore. But this does not mean lowering the guard. And this does not mean the large majority of people in this world have changed their attitudes toward persons living with HIV/AIDS.

In Africa where the two pastors come from, the incidence of HIV/AIDS is still relatively high compared to other regions of the world. And church persons in Africa have not been spared.

Byamugisha, who is soon to become a visiting professor at a US university, teaches courses on “religion, activism and socioeconomic development in Africa and the diaspora.” He has a long string of academic achievements. He is a founding member of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS.

A former Catholic, Mabizela is a Presbyterian pastor and executive director of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV and AIDS.

Both had lost their spouse/partner to AIDS. Both with children, they have since remarried—Byamugisha to an HIV-positive woman—and found ways to beget HIV-negative children.  When asked how, the irrepressible Mabizela answered with a loud guffaw, “The natural way!” She added with humor that HIV had done nothing to make her lose weight.

Their life stories are for the books.

Before the small press conference began, I whispered to Assistant Pastor Al Senturias and moderator Dr. Erlinda Senturias that I needed to know how the main speakers contracted HIV and how they learned about it without my asking so publicly.  Sure enough, both spoke about the matter so spontaneously. (I can’t share their stories in detail because of space limitations. Suffice it to say that unknown to both, their deceased better halves had been HIV-infected.)

Some quick facts: HIV is transmitted through infected persons’ body fluids: blood (through transfusion), semen, vaginal/cervical fluids and breast milk. It is not contracted through touch, inhalation, food or drinking water. It cannot thrive outside the human body.

The main themes of the two pastors’ campaign talks everywhere are: “To end the stigma, to create safe spaces for people living with HIV/AIDS, and to heal fear through education.”

They have come up with catchy acronyms like SAVE: S for safer practices, including knowing your HIV status, delaying sexual debut, abstinence, mutual partner fidelity, safe blood, clean syringes, condom use; A for access to treatment and nutrition; V for voluntary counseling and confidential testing; and E for empowerment of women, youth, children and men.

They raise the need to end SSD DIM, or stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and misaction. And the need to end fear—of the unknown, of being contaminated, of lack of access to resources, of being excluded by loved ones, of leaving orphaned children, of not being able to do anything about AIDS, and of death.

One of the questions I asked was about disclosure. Does a person living with HIV have to make a disclosure? When, to whom, and how? Is it a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation? Is it necessary?

The answer I got from the two pastors was that their stature in their churches and communities was a factor in their decision to disclose. In the case of Byamugisha, he was very lucky that his bishop had been very supportive from the start. The decision of the two pastors to disclose was almost imperative in order that they could help in the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign.

But not everyone living with the virus would have the same effect or influence. Some may experience rejection and discrimination in their families, workplace and communities. Not everyone needs to disclose or be compelled to disclose.

Both robust and energetic, Byamugisha and Mabizela are the picture of physical health on the outside. There is no denying that they are living with a virus that has yet to be totally conquered by science and medicine. Byamugisha revealed that he had gone through a near-death scare, but survived.

Both continue to be a blessing to the anti-HIV/AIDS advocacy, in the churches and outside, in their communities in Africa and in the world.

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Human Dignity and Human Sexuality. 26/02/2015.

Published at Svenska kyrkan
Written by Jape Mokgethi-Heath
23 February 2015

Human Dignity and Human Sexuality

004The first Uppsala Festival of Theology was held in 2008. It focused on the theme Streams of Living water. This year we held the fourth Uppsala festival of Theology under the theme Behold, I make all things new. Not everything was new, the concept of different streams continued to guide the development of the program, and this year, amongst the 13 different streams two were held in English. As part of the Human Dignity and Human Sexuality stream distinguished theologians and religious leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths were invited to first participate in a three day pre-festival dialogue, and then to participate in the panel discussion on the theme on Saturday 7th February this year.

As the discussions were to be around the way in which the sacred texts and the religious practice of Jews, Muslims and Christians respond to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), participants represented both heterosexual and homosexual sexual orientations. This was done principally to ensure that we were talk to each other, not about each other. As part of the preparation theologians from each of the Abrahamic or Monotheistic faiths were asked to develop resource packs which could be used to stimulate discussion. The resource packs were specifically designed to deal with arguments used to discriminate against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) in our faith communities, namely; it’s not in our culture, it’s not natural and it’s not scriptural. Authors were then challenged to offer a new way of looking at human sexuality through the eyes of faith.

Two eminent people had been asked to moderate the session, namely His Grace, Archbishop Emeritus Anders Wejryd and Professor Riffat Hassan. Professor Hassan, having forty years of experience in developing and teaching feminist theology from a Muslim perspective was charged with an additional responsibility; in the antagonistic environment in which many people of faith, and particularly religious leaders view LGBTI people, develop a letter, which could open the doors to dialogue.

Professor Hassan put forward two key arguments for engagement; the first was the nature of God, and the second was that sacred texts had been interpreted by men within a patriarchal setting. For an authentic reading of sacred texts this needed to be acknowledged and the voices of both women and LGBTI people needed to be heard in terms of their context and understanding. Within this the clear guideline was that our interpretation of our sacred texts must be authentic to the nature of God. According to Professor Hassan 113 of the 114 Surah’s or chapters of the Qu’ran start with the words; “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful and Gracious, the Most Compassionate and the Dispenser of Grace”. In addition to this Muslims recite this at the beginning of any important event in their daily lives. It is the key nature of God, and any interpretation of or action leading from an interpretation of the Qu’ran which does not reflect this nature of God must be seen as incorrect. Professor Hassan was at pains to show that this was not unique to the Muslims, and that the merciful and compassionate nature of God is repeated over and over again both in the Torah and the New Testament.

Of clear importance in this engagement was however the general understanding of sexuality and marriage which the various Abrahamic faiths hold. Professor Hassan pointed out that which for both Jews and Muslims there is a very strong affirmation of sexuality and of marriage this is not the case within Christianity. She hypothesized that much of the current negativity about human sexuality has effectively come into both Judaism and Islam from Christianity. Much of this is related to doctrinal teaching which has come to us from both “Doctors of the Church”, like St Augustine, and even the leaders of the reformation. Celibacy and the monastic life has been seen as the highest state of Spiritual awareness. The father of the Lutheran church, who himself had been an Augustinian Monk and then later married a nun said “No matter what praise I give to marriage, I will not concede that it is no sin.”

Human Dignity and Human Sexuality are not mutually exclusive. At least this was clear at the end of our dialogue process. Participants felt that ongoing dialogue, which included both an interfaith component as well as the voices of all affected, was critical. This was affirmed in a statement which was made. All who participated in this first engagement were greatly enriched by it. As Church of Sweden we are committed to assisting in the future of this dialogue.

For Full test of Professor Riffat Hassan’s Letter please visit


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Red Trees lead to Crucial Conversations in Families. 2015/08/27


Red Trees lead to Crucial Conversations in Families

Ethembeni HIV, AIDS and TB Ministry have wrapped 160 trees in red fabric along Nelson Mandela Drive in Mpophomeni. Our shared goal is to engage families who are fearful of HIV, AIDS and TB conversations. Crucial conversations will be facilitated each day for 7 days from 10am to 4pm outside the Mpophomeni Community Hall starting on Monday the 24th August 2015. Questions that will be facilitated respectfully yet honestly in small groups are for example:

Why am I taking these pills? Why must I know my HIV status? How can TB be stopped? Why are young girls being raped on a daily basis? How can I make a difference?

We trust that as a result individuals and families will triumph over their fear by taking appropriate action to respond to HIV, AIDS and TB.

Ethembeni HIV, AIDS and TB Ministry is an independent NGO providing comprehensive care, development and prevention services to affected families for the past 15 years across the KZN Midlands. We are challenged by Madiba on a daily basis to show courage in spite of the fearful statistics and stories surrounding us. For example, 41 out of every 100 pregnant ladies are testing positive for HIV within the Umgungundlovu District. (The 2012 National Antenatal Sentinel HIV and Herpes Simplex type-2 prevalence Survey, South Africa, National Department of Health. )

The story of Babalwa (not her real name) is an example of crucial conversations taking place along a shared journey of moving from vulnerability to wholeness …., leading to another family becoming free from the impact of HIV, AIDS and TB. Some snippets from her story of hope…

The Prevention team goes from house to house, knocking on every door. That day Babalwa opened her door to them. A conversation begins, and a new relationship is formed:

“Sawubona (we see you) … we are here … to talk openly about HIV, AIDS, and TB – let us talk about these things which are hard to talk about.”

“I am so grateful that you came. I am worried if my health results are not going to affect my unborn baby and am worried how my CD4 count will look like.“

The team commented: “She appeared to be very scared to be visited by people from a health institution; scared to talk about health issues as they involve sexual talks.”

She had the opportunity to be tested and counselled in the privacy of her own home. She responded to the result by taking appropriate action, with the support of the team. This included further testing at the clinic, and starting with PMTCT (Preventing Mother to Child Transmission) and ARV treatment. She attended antenatal classes.

“I was so happy when my baby was born healthy and HIV negative.”

“I was even happier when my partner took the test and received counselling.”

“She was always present in the antenatal classes and participated well. We remember her as someone who is very positive about life and eager to change bad habits; and even encouraged others in the class to keep attending.”

The journey with Babalwa continued, and growing wholeness and freedom became evident:

“Openness is part of healing; it’s good to know and accept your status so that you can be able to know where you stand with your life.”

She encourages others to triumph over their fear and take action:

“You know sissie it does not help to try and look at your past or your current partner to find out who has infected you – you will just end up very stressed. Every partner will deny infecting you. You need to focus on your current relationship and build it even stronger.”

Babalwa’s husband: “Thank you Ethembeni for coming to my wife otherwise we were not going to know about our status and end up infecting the baby. And from now we are going to live a joyful life supporting each other.”

The full story can be read here:

We thank all our partners for faithfully and courageously engaging in the greatest fight of our generation and for sharing in our vision of all families free from HIV, AIDS and TB.



For more information:

Name: Mrs Bongekile Ngcobo

Position: Ethembeni Prevention Manager

Contact number: 078 423 2267

Email address:


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Pope Francis promotes HIV/AIDS treatment.07/08/2015

Published at Caritas
Written By Robert Vittilo
Date 22 July 2015

 Claudia Carroll and Annet Adhiambo (11) at St. Peter's Junior School, Nanyuki, central Kenya The school is part of the Living in Faith Association supported by Trocaire (Caritas member in Ireland) and was set up by Emily Aoko Otieno on land outside her house to help children from the community who are affected or living with HIV/AIDS to receive an education. Photo by Trocaire

When words of greeting, encouragement, and prayerful solidarity were read out from Pope Francis, strong applause was heard among the six thousand participants in the Opening Session of the International AIDS Society’s 8th Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention. Through the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Pope expressed his “esteem for their work and the dedication it requires.” He gave thanks for the lives saved by Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment (HAART) and for the use of “Treatment as Prevention” and noted that such efforts “give witness to the possibilities for beneficial outcome when all sectors of society unite in common purpose.” Finally, he assured the participants of his prayers “that all advances in pharmacology, treatment, and research will be matched by a firm commitment to promote the integral development of each person as a beloved child of God.”
This letter was addressed to Dr. Julio Montaner, Director of the British Columbia Center of Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul’s Hospital, Vancouver, and Co-Chairperson of the Conference. Dr. Montaner closed his reading of the Pope’s letter with tears in his eyes and stated, “I love Pope Francis!…If he ‘gets’ it, on the need for early treatment of HIV, why are some scientists still debating this?”
St. Paul’s is a Catholic-inspired institution, founded by the Sisters of Providence, and has distinguished itself for HIV care as well as cutting-edge scientific research to demonstrate that early diagnosis and treatment of people living with HIV not only saves lives but also is 96 percent effective in preventing the further spread of the disease. Thus the major focus of this year’s Conference is “Treatment as Prevention”. International public health experts affirmed that they now have indisputable scientific evidence that HIV/AIDS could be ended as a public health emergency by 2030 if at least 90 percent of all people living with HIV could be properly diagnosed, and started on effective anti-retroviral treatment to lower the amount of virus in their bodies and thus drastically decrease the number of new HIV infections in all parts of the world.
In order to accomplish these ambitious goals, however, all key stakeholders will need to engage in outreach to the most poor and vulnerable populations that still do not benefit from HIV treatment. In his opening address to the Conference, UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibé celebrated the fact that 15 million people now are receiving treatment but reminded the participants that another 22 million still do not have access to these medicines and that many of these do not even know that they are infected.
Dr. Montaner invited Caritas Special Advisor on HIV and Health, Msgr. Robert Vitillo to make a presentation on the accomplishments of religious-inspired organizations in facilitating HIV testing and treatment, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which remains the epicenter of the disease. Msgr. Vitillo shared data from a survey undertaken during the past year. He noted the impressive outcomes reported by Catholic Relief Services (CRS – Caritas member organization from the USA) from its 9-year coordination of the AIDS Relief Programme in 10 countries of the world. During that time period, CRS channeled more than US$740 million in support from PEPFAR (the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) Programme. These services reached 713,000 clients, and were able to enroll 395,000 on treatment. Training of 30,000 staff was undertaken; most of the staff and volunteers worked in community-based settings. CRS reported very low statistics on clients lost to follow-up and on patient mortality. Most significant was the fact that more than 85 percent of clients had significantly low amount of virus and thus were less likely to pass the infection to other persons.
Msgr. Vitillo also reported impressive results from the Christian Health Association of Zambia and from the comprehensive DREAM Project sponsored in several African countries by the Comunità Sant’Egidio.
In so many ways, the main theme of the conference was summed up with a quote from a young Thai girl, the patient of one of the presenters at the opening plenary. Years ago, children living with AIDS were rarely able to survive past their second or third birthday. Now this child, who has been on treatment for the last six years could dream as follows: “For my future, I would like to have a family, house, rice farm and money which I earn for a living. I am on the promising way of hope.”
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Faith-based care invisible to health researchers 05/08/2015

Published at SciDev
Written by Miriam Shuchman
23 July 2015

Speed read

  • Researchers lack data on services faith-based organisations provide
  • Religious groups are not involved in collecting or interpreting evidence
  • Myths about religious objectives can harm science collaboration

Faith-based care invisible to health researchers

Edward Mills, an epidemiologist at consultancy Global Evaluative Sciences in Canada, who led the series, says he wants to bring faith-based groups into academic discourse around global health. Because they are not currently involved in collecting or interpreting evidence, Mills says, “we simply don’t know what they do, we don’t know what they recommend.”

 Vitillo says religious groups that consider working with government or public health researchers face prejudice, such as the “myths that faith-based organisations are there only to proselytise, or that they only serve believers within their faith systems”. Even in fields such as HIV/AIDS, where churches have a huge presence, “it’s very rare for a faith-based organisation to be included at a table with some of the best scientists”, he says.
 US charity Catholic Relief Services, for example, has served more than 713,000 clients in ten countries, enrolling 395,000 on antiretroviral treatment, according to a presentation Vitillo gave in Canada on 18 July, ahead of the 8th International AIDS Society conference on HIV pathogenesis. Yet the data and experience from these efforts is often lost to researchers, he says. “You can’t begin to think about coming to the end of AIDS as a public health crisis unless you include those people at the table,” he says.
 Lancet editor Richard Horton himself was once among those in the dark. At the 2012 International AIDS Conference in the United States, he told religious leaders describing their groups’ efforts to provide HIV care: “I’ve got a conflict: I don’t agree with all of you,” referring to faith-based organisations’ conservative attitudes towards methods of birth control such as condoms. Yet after listening to their presentations, he apologised, explaining that he had underestimated the services the groups deliver.
 The Lancet series highlights other issues where the religious and secular communities have worked towards the same goals, such as the influence of two Islamic leaders in helping to reduce female genital mutilation.
 Mills hopes the series promotes exchanges between faith-based organisations and the global health community. “We’re at a very, very early stage in terms of the dialogue,” he says.
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Trying New Ways That Can Save Lives From HIV and AIDS. 2/7/2015


Trying new ways that can save lives from HIV and AIDS

Rev. Phumzile Mabizela (left) presenting a “Thursdays in Black” t-shirt to Prof. Charity Irungu (right), deputy vice chancellor for academic affairs at St Paul’s University in Limuru


*By Dorothy Kweyu 

When a World Council of Churches (WCC) meeting on ecumenical HIV and AIDS response concluded last week in Limuru, Kenya, its message to the global HIV and AIDS community was terse: traditional ways of tackling the pandemic have failed.

During a public lecture at St Paul’s University in Limuru, held as part of the WCC meeting, Rev. Phumzile Mabizela shared the latest statistics on HIV, where rates of infection have risen in people ages 15 to 24 years. A 2012 UNAIDS study shows that, out of 1.6 million new infections, 33 percent were in young people. Mabizela is the executive director of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS (INERELA+).

An attentive audience of more than 300 heard: “We need to take seriously the fact that the common mode of transmission is heterosexual sexual activity.” In most cultures, the oral cultural discourse included elaborate systems and activities to promote sexuality education.

“The advent of western religions confused us and made us believe that these practices were pagan. The challenge is, these practices were not replaced by other more effective platforms to promote sexuality education,” said Mabizela, who considers the ABC (Abstinence, be faithful, use a condom) approach wanting because it reduces HIV to a sexual morality issue on assumption that key populations — especially teenagers — have the power to make decisions these days.

The SAVE (Safer Practices, Access to Treatment and Nutrition, Voluntary Counselling and Testing and Empowerment ) method developed by INERELA+ was described as “more comprehensive” by Mabizela in addressing sexuality issues and other means of HIV transmission, namely transfusion of contaminated blood, sharing of contaminated needles, and between a mother and her infant during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. The ABC method is still promoted by many religious communities and HIV actors. It ignores critical concerns about adolescents and women’s empowerment, which demands involvement from men and religious communities.

Challenges on the way

Speaking before Mabizela, the outgoing chairperson of the International Reference Group (IRG) of the WCC’s Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA), Astrid Berner Rodoreda said that prevention messages were couched in scary skeletal pictures that have been rendered obsolete by anti-retrovirals (ARVs) availability. However, while having 14 million people on ARVs is a success story, challenges have emerged, she said.

Rodoreda went on to say that “it’s not easy to take medicine for the rest of your life.”

There is need to prevent new infections alongside efforts to get every infected person on treatment. “We still have a long way to go,” Rodoreda warns, challenging governments and the international community to take HIV as seriously as they did recently with ebola.

The approach of using contextual Bible study, introduced in South Africa in the1990s, resonated well with the black-clad participants of the meeting on a day when “ Thursdays in Black: Towards a World without Rape and Violence Campaign”  was launched at the 10th anniversary of the Tamar Trees of Hope and Life project at St Paul’s University. Trees were planted by participants of the IRG meeting, led by Prof. Charity Irungu from St Paul’s University, Bishop Godson Lawson from Togo, IRG chairperson and Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, EHAIA’s programme executive at the WCC.

Addressing sexuality

EHAIA has been using publications to address sexuality since 2001. Bishop Lawson described EHAIA’s record as “impressive”, singling out contributions by Prof. Musa Dube of Botswana and Ezra Chitando of Zimbabwe. Like Mabizela, the bishop regards HIV and adolescents as an important agenda for EHAIA. Although churches have an agenda for children up to about 12 years, there are few teenage-friendly structures and yet this age group is sexually active.

In spite of involving churches in HIV and AIDS campaigns, the problems still persist. Theologian and LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) activist Rev. Dummie Mmualefe, minister of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, decried hypocrisy in addressing same-sex issues.

Mmualefe said that, due to the personal involvement of Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae, “We have done ‘very well’ in making ARVs available. But complacency has set in and infection rates are on the rise, partly fuelled by the handling of gay and lesbian issues.” Mmualefe shared his observation that in some cases gay men are even asked for sexual favours by men in the churches and politicians. Such cases indicate hypocrisy that should be acknowledged, he said.

“There’s denial by the government, by the church, by everybody over LGBTI issues,” Mmualefe said, adding that HIV and AIDS are hardly ever mentioned in church.

The IRG provides support, guidance and policy advice for the EHAIA projects. The group facilitates interaction between stakeholders and experts and provides space for technical support. The IRG meets once a year. Currently the IRG has 18 members from sub-Saharan Africa, Jamaica, the Philippines and Europe and five field staff based in sub-Saharan Africa.

* Dorothy Kweyu, a Kenyan journalist, is the consulting editor at the Editorial Centre in Nairobi.

More information: INERELA+ SAVE tool kit

More information: Thursdays in Black

Read full text of the public lecture by Rev. Phumzile Mabizela

Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA) 

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Faith-based organizations, crucial partners for health. 28/07/2015

Published at UNAIDS
13 July 2015

A new three-part series on faith-based health care published in The Lancet this week has outlined the importance of faith-based organizations in achieving universal health coverage and an adequate standard of health care for all people, especially in resource limited settings and for marginalized groups.

The Lancet Series explores the provision of health care by faith based organizations and examines the nexus of faith, religion and health care controversies.  The series was launched at an international conference at the World Bank on “Religion and Sustainable Development: Building Partnerships to End Extreme Poverty”.

The series argues that the extensive experience, strengths and capacities of faith-based organizations offer a unique opportunity to improve health outcomes and that faith-based health providers play an important part in meeting public health needs.

Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and Sally Smith, UNAIDS adviser on faith-based organizations, commented on The Lancet Series, religion and Ebola. They outlined how the uptake of health services and the success of health systems' interface with communities are affected by complex interrelationships between culture, tradition, religion, stigma and discrimination. They wrote that HIV has demonstrated this clearly over many years and that the Ebola crisis has also shown that interdisciplinary approaches to public health are critical to success. 

Speaking at the conference on the response to the Ebola crisis, Sheikh Abu Bakarr Conteh, President of the Inter-religious Council of Sierra Leone, highlighted the work the Sierra Leone Inter-religious AIDS Network (SLIRAN) has done to provide support to Ebola survivors and address stigma and discrimination towards them. Created by the Council primarily to support work with people living with HIV, SLIRAN was able to draw on their rich experience in raising awareness and mobilizing religious congregations for HIV services and in providing care and support for people living with HIV. 

Presentations at the conference focused on reviewing the evidence base and developing specific recommendations for action to strengthen effective partnerships between religious and faith-based groups and the public sector. Both The Lancet Series and the conference made recommendations for future action and partnerships.

UNAIDS was closely involved in shaping and developing The Lancet Series and in organizing key sessions at the conference. UNAIDS shared with participants evidence on the extent, scale and nature of partnerships with the faith community in providing services for HIV. An additional contribution was a discussion on how partnerships and skills developed over 30 years of responding to HIV have been mobilized quickly and effectively to support the Ebola response. 


"As the global health community plans for sustainable health goals for the future, it will be crucial to leverage existing infrastructure and existing community partnerships to improve health outcomes. Faith-based organizations often represent the only health infrastructure in a region and have strong cultural ties to the communities. It is time for the general medical community to recognize the magnitude of services offered and partner or support to provide long-standing improvements in health."

Edward J. Mills, Professor at the University of Ottawa, and The Lancet Series lead

“We know from the HIV response that faith-based organizations’ health services provide a significant proportion of HIV-related health care, particularly in resource limited settings. They reach the most marginialised in society, who are often the most in need of lifesaving health services. .”

Sally Smith, UNAIDS adviser on faith-based organizations

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WCC Group Evaluates Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Response. 29/6/2015


WCC group evaluates ecumenical HIV and AIDS response

Participants of the EHAIA meeting celebrate ten years of the “Tamar Trees of Hope and Life” initiative by planting trees at the St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. © WCC/Dixon Andiwa

A World Council of Churches (WCC) group concluded a three-day meeting by acknowledging achievements that have been made in addressing HIV and AIDS.

As the meeting closed on 26 June in Limuru, Kenya, the outgoing chairperson of the International Reference Group (IRG) of the WCC’s Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA), Astrid Berner Rodoreda, recalled the reticence that surrounded the topic of sexuality in church circles when the group first came together in 2003.

Rodoreda, who is also the HIV senior adviser for the German organization Bread for the World, was accompanied by her successor, Bishop Godson Lawson of Togo and Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, EHAIA programme executive. The group noted that, from the beginning, they realized that, since HIV and AIDS are sexually transmitted infections, the church could not help people cope with the challenges without addressing sexuality, a difficult subject in many churches and taboo in many wider communities.

At the beginning, churches still had a long way to go in addressing not only the subject of sexuality but the even more sensitive topics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI).

Bishop Lawson, a Methodist minister, noted, however, that when the IRG was established, HIV was low on churches’ agenda, but today, most member churches have set up HIV and AIDS desks.

Rodoreda also commented on the 90-90-90 concept and the current status of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. The concept seeks to have 90 percent of people living with HIV knowing their sero-status by 2020. Out of that percentage, 90 percent should be on treatment by 2020, and out of the latter group, 90 percent should have an undetectable viral load to stop the spread of HIV.

The outgoing EHAIA chairperson said setbacks persist because many countries no longer view HIV and AIDS as an emergency largely because of free anti-retroviral (ARV) programmes. And yet, “a lot of people are being put on treatment, but a lot of them are falling out,” she said.

Part of the problem lay in the much-hyped faith-healing, which makes people on ARVs throw them away on assumption that they are healed, only for them to develop resistance to the virus, for which there is no known cure. “At the moment, we do not have an alternative to ARVs,” she stressed.

Rodoreda commended EHAIA for its initiatives in transformative masculinities, which acknowledge the importance of involving men in ending sexual and gender-based violence.

Bishop Lawson described a youth manual on stigma and discrimination as an important output of EHAIA work. The last session of the meeting was dedicated to adolescents—an important population segment in addressing HIV and AIDS.

This was capped by a public lecture at the St Paul’s University Limuru by Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, executive director of the International Network of Religious Leaders living with AIDS (INERELA+). The title of her lecture was “Adolescents, HIV, Sexual Violence and Sexuality”.

Prior to Mabizela’s lecture, the meeting participants and St Paul’s University community officials planted trees in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Tamar project. The initiative draws its name from the biblical Tamar, who was raped by her half-brother, consigning her to a life of social exclusion.

Read full text of the public lecture by Rev. Phumzile Mabizela


Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (EHAIA)


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WCC considers AIDS report a “valuable tool”. 29/06/2015

Published at WCC
26 June 2015

A new report titled “Defeating AIDS–Advancing global health” was appreciated as a significant resource in encouraging an effective global AIDS response by Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The report, launched on 25 June in London, United Kingdom, by UNAIDS and the Lancet Commission urges the countries most affected by HIV to focus on stopping new HIV infections and expanding access to antiretroviral treatment or risk the epidemic rebounding.

The new report shows that innovations in the AIDS response should be exploited to meet future global health challenges. It urges the countries most affected by HIV to focus on stopping new HIV infections and expanding access to antiretroviral treatment or risk the epidemic rebounding.

Phiri, who serves as a commissioner of the UNAIDS-Lancet Commission on Defeating AIDS - Advancing global health as a faith community representative, said the report is a valuable tool which can help churches address the crucial issue of HIV and AIDS in more sustainable ways.

“This report testifies the importance of keeping HIV and AIDS response on the post 2015 health agenda while promoting a holistic approach. This has also been the approach of WCC. While substantial progress has been made towards zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths, the report shows us that more work still needs to be done among the key populations,” said Phiri.

She continued, “The report singles out the adolescent girls who are at the top list of the risk group. The faith communities need to ensure that the sex education that we are offering this age group is informed by evidence, accurate and complete in order to protect life in our quest for justice and peace.”

The new report is critical of countries that have become complacent, highlighting that some countries with previously stable or declining HIV epidemics have shown trends of increasing risky sexual behaviours among at-risk groups over the past five years, with new HIV infections on the rise.

The report makes seven key recommendations, leading with the urgent need to scale up AIDS efforts, get serious about HIV prevention, and continue expanding access to treatment. Other recommendations include efficient mobilisation of more resources for HIV prevention, treatment, and research, and for robust, transparent governance and accountability for HIV and health.

The Lancet Commission was established in 2013 by UNAIDS and The Lancet, and brings together 38 heads of state and political leaders, HIV and health experts, young people, activists, scientists, and private sector representatives to ensure that lessons learned in the AIDS response can be applied to transform how countries and partners approach health and development.

In the UNAIDS Lancet Commission press release Professor Peter Piot is quoted as saying, “We must face hard truths—if the current rate of new HIV infections continues, merely sustaining the major efforts we already have in place will not be enough to stop deaths from AIDS increasing within five years in many countries.  Expanding sustainable access to treatment is essential, but we will not treat ourselves out of the AIDS epidemic. We must also reinvigorate HIV prevention efforts, particularly among populations at highest risk, while removing legal and societal discrimination.”

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS and co-convenor of the Commission warns, “We have to act now. The next five years provide a fragile window of opportunity to fast-track the response and end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. If we don’t, the human and financial consequences will be catastrophic.”.

And Lancet Editor-in-Chief and co-convenor of the Commission Dr Richard Horton is quoted as saying, “The movement created by the AIDS response is unprecedented—a system of checks and balances from a people-centred approach is one that more global health institutions should adopt. Identifying multi-sectoral stakeholders early will save time and money by ensuring the best solutions reach the right people.”

Through its programmes such as the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy and the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, the WCC promotes and equips “HIV competent” churches through theological resources and training, and campaigns for strong and sustained HIV responses with justice and dignity at their core.


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HIV-positive vicar overwhelmed by response to video. 1/6/2015

Published at The Guardian
Written by Jessica Elgot
21 May 2015

The Rev Hayley Young of Hampshire creates video using words on sheets of cardboard to explain illness to congregation.

A screengrab from Cardboard Testimony by the Rev Hayley Young.






A screengrab from Cardboard Testimony by the Rev Hayley Young. Photograph: Hayling Island Baptist Church/YouTube


A vicar who made a film to tell her congregation she was HIV positive says she has been overwhelmed by the response.

The Rev Hayley Young, minister at Hayling Island Baptist church in Hampshire, made the film Cardboard Testimony to “set the record straight” after rumours began circulating among the congregation about her recent ill health.

The 28-year-old told the Guardian she had been humbled by the reaction to the video, now viewed more than 1,000 times on YouTube, but said she had only intended it for her congregation.

“I’m just a vicar and I didn’t think I’d get this kind of attention,” she said. “For me, working in the church is about helping the marginalised and the vulnerable. I don’t intend to turn this into a campaign, I just want to continue doing my job.”



Young said that making the video using words on sheets of cardboard had made it less emotionally draining to tell her story.

“I knew I had to tell the church, but I knew that standing up and speaking would be very hard,” she said. “Making this video made it a bit easier, so I sat down to write the cards and just wrote how I felt, however the words flowed out. I just tried to make how I felt make sense.”

In the video, Young’s cardboard posters described how she had contracted HIV after an attack in 2013 but had only told a handful of people. “Some were amazing and supportive. Others were not. A few people said I was dangerous, I shouldn’t be near children, I was a risk,” she wrote. “Seriously, do I look dangerous to you?

“I kept smiling and joking because I’m your pastor, I’m meant to be strong and I’m meant to have all the answers, but inside I was struggling, I knew God was there but He seemed so far away,” she continued.

“HIV has made my body weak and vulnerable, I have been fighting and my body is getting used to the drugs that will help me. I am scared of not being in control, not getting old, being judged and people’s perceptions of me.”

Young said her faith had made her more accepting of the illness. “I know in all this there are blessings. I no longer have to worry about my hair going curly in the rain. Seriously, I know that I am God’s masterpiece and He hasn’t finished with me yet.

“I am the same as I was before, just a bit more positive.”

Young said that although she felt daunted by the attention the video had garnered, she was encouraged if she had inspired anyone living with HIV. “If someone is in the same position, I would say they should feel the fear, and then do it anyway,” she said.

“It’s always going to be scary, but your mates are your mates. You don’t have to announce it to the world, just do what feels right.”

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Faith-based health professionals should be less modest, says UN official. 28/05/2015

Published at WCC
26 May 2015

Faith-based health professionals should be less modest, says UN officialGlobal health and religious leaders meeting at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva have noted the essential role Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) play in providing health services.  They met in a consultation at the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva on Thursday 21 May entitled: “The future of faith-based health care provision”. Participants related some of their experiences in responding to the global Ebola crisis.

Dr Luiz Loures, deputy executive director of UNAIDS (picture), said the Ebola crisis was “more than a wake-up call”, and a meeting such as the one at the WCC  helps professionals see where “this transition takes us” in medical services provision.

“Faith-based workers were the first ones to die of Ebola, but before that they were also the first ones to care about it,” said Loures.

He urged FBOs not to be too modest about their work. “Look to the evidence.  The evidence speaks for itself,” he said.

He encouraged the FBOs: “You can build your communication. When you build your communication you have evidence” that can help in building knowledge of the work of religious institutions in the field of medical care provision.

The consultation at the WCC was convened as the World Health Assembly was taking was being held in Geneva from 18–26 May.

“For us as Christians, faith in God as creator, God as our reconciler, God as our healer, and also the God who calls us to serve” is central, said WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, in his opening remarks.

He noted, “Some people need more care and more resources than others, and that is part of our commitment.”

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Health David Parirenyatwa attended. His country currently holds a significant position as chair of the African Union.

Dr Samuel Mwenda, general secretary of the Christian Health Association of Kenya (CHAK), co-chaired the meeting. He said FBOs in his country’s health sector were very important, but they are not achieving their full potential.

“FBOs have lost many lower level health facilities which have closed down due to lack of funding,” he said, raising the question, why?

He cited a loss of donor subsidies, no government funding, the poor communities served who have no or limited means of paying for medical services and the increased cost of health service delivery inputs, among other reasons.

“This represents lost opportunity for communities previously served by these health facilities,” he said.

Monsignor  Robert J. Vitillo, who heads works for Caritas Internationalis as both head of delegation to the United Nations in Geneva and special advisor on HIV/AIDS and health, shared a view similar to that of  Mwenda.

He noted that FBOs are often in the communities before a crisis such as Ebola. “We need access to funding and resources in accord with the burden of care we shoulder.  We are there; we are partners; we are not competing with the government,” Vitillo said in a plea to the international community.

“We are complementing what governments cannot do. We should not be seen as a threat. We should not be seen as duplicative.”

Vitillo noted that many of the FBO services are “alone in those countries in conflict where those governments don’t have control over some of the areas where we are and we are delivering services.”

Also attending, along with international health experts, was a group of students from the department of nursing and public health at Kent State University in the United States.

Every year more than 20 students attend the WHA in Geneva and also visit the WCC through its health and healing programme as part of their studies.

The students heard how FBOs play a key role in global health, especially in developing nations.

Those working in health, health leaders and faith leaders who met at the WCC shared experiences, bringing data about coverage, quality of care and responses to epidemics, emergencies and conflicts.


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In Africa's battle against AIDS, a key player hits a crossroads. 22/04/2015

Published at The Christian Science Monitor
Written by Ryan Lenora Brown
21 April 2015

The Catholic Church administers 25 percent of all AIDS treatment worldwide, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas. But it's facing new obstacles as funding declines and African governments are under pressure to provide services themselves.

KAYESA, MALAWI, and JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — In the center of Kayesa, a sun-drenched village in central Malawi, stands the empty shell of a public health clinic.

Its red brick walls are gap-toothed and end abruptly at window height, where construction stopped when the village chief ran out of money last year. Goats wander lazily through the half-completed structure, picking at fruit peels on the dirt floor.

But only about 100 yards away, villagers wait patiently in a long line to visit with a doctor at Kayesa’s Catholic church, St. Mary’s. Inside the squat one-room brick building, a team of Slovenian doctors and medical students who visit the village twice a month briskly dole out antibiotics, wound dressings, and advice on HIV treatment. Boxes of their supplies lie sprawled across the altar.

Across much of sub-Saharan Africa, this is a familiar scene. In a region that is home to both many of the world’s poorest states and its sickest, countries have long turned to private healthcare providers — many of them faith-based — to fill the gaps in their coverage. Indeed, five decades after Malawi's independence, churches are still responsible for 40 percent of all healthcare provision in this sliver of southeastern Africa, and 80 percent in so-called “hard to staff” areas, according to the US State Department.

The impact has been particularly notable in confronting HIV/AIDS as it swept across the continent over the past three decades, particularly in those remote areas where governments are hard-pressed to provide services. Today, the Vatican and UNAIDS estimate that the Catholic Church — which mounted an early and massive ground-level response, building up a network of hospitals, hospices, orphanages, and clinics — administers 25 percent of all AIDS treatment, care, and support throughout the world. But like many other faith-based groups here, Catholic health workers say their primary motive is helping support essential healthcare provision, rather than promoting conversion.

“We often say that we serve people because we are Catholic, not so that they will be Catholic,” says Father Bob Vitillo, the special adviser on HIV/AIDS for Caritas Internationalis, the global federation of Catholic charities. “There is no proselytizing to the sick.”

But the institution’s future in the fight against HIV/AIDS is increasingly uncertain.

Many governments — including Malawi’s — are working to gradually reduce their reliance on private providers such as churches. Global funding for faith-based AIDS relief is also shrinking. That, many argue, is a good thing – a pivot toward self-sufficiency for countries historically reliant on missionary handouts for the provision of even basic social services. But the institutional roots of the church remain far deeper than the roots of government across much of Africa, and its reach more expansive, underscoring for many observers the need to recognize churches' ongoing importance amid efforts to improve health care on the continent. 

“In many countries, delivery of health care has naturally become a social good expected of the state, and so it remains then to think out what the future role of church medical institutions should be,” says Ken Johnson, a lecturer at the Malawi College of Medicine. "It is a mistake for Catholic hospitals to insist on doing basic services ... rightly taken up by government. But rather let them be creative, because there remain many unmet health issues." 

Positive sign: a business declines

For Harrison Chiringa, a coffin-maker in the Malawian city of Kasungu, which lies 65 kilometers (about 40 miles) from Kayesa by bone-rattling dirt road, the impact of church healthcare in the region isn’t hard to isolate — after all, it’s had direct bearing on his business.

“When I opened my coffin shop in 2008, I could sell two, sometimes three coffins a week,” he says.  

In the small workshop behind the store, he and his assistants were perpetually busy transforming slabs of raw wood into the glossy handled boxes now on display.  The most ornate sold for as much as $150, a princely sum in a country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day.

But today, Mr. Chiringa says, he sells perhaps two per month, and the rows of coffins at his feet are literally gathering dust in the whitewashed shop.

It is a marker, in part, of a broader transition this part of the world has undergone in recent years, as improving HIV/AIDS care meant the disease was no longer so certain and prevalent a killer.

In Malawi, life expectancy climbed from 40 years in 2000 to 55 in 2011. And even as the prevalence of HIV fell from 14 percent to 11 percent during the same period, locals say the number of people living openly with the virus rose steeply.

Part of the responsibility for the pivot belongs to the government, which runs a large hospital in Kasungu and, since 2004, has dispensed free antiretroviral treatment — ARTs — to any sick Malawian who can reach one of its HIV clinics.

But for many here, that’s a near impossible challenge. Less than half of Malawians are within a five-kilometer (3-mile) walk of a clinic or hospital. Nearly every village, on the other hand, has a Catholic church.

 “Government just doesn’t have the capacity to treat everyone, especially in the rural areas,” says Henry Lunda, who for several years ran the Catholic Church’s AIDS relief program in the region around Kayesa. “They rely on the church programs. I don’t know if they want to, but they have to.”

'We are very far away from Rome'

For the Catholics, AIDS ministry here began as it did in most places across Africa — by providing hospice care.

Through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, “there was little we could do except help people die with dignity — and then provide support to those who were left behind,” says Father Vitillo of Caritas Internationalis.

But by the mid-2000s, the landscape began to shift. AIDS was becoming a chronic but treatable illness in the West, and a massive influx of donor dollars — led by former President George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — promised for the first time to bring the new medical treatment to the heart of the epidemic: sub-Saharan Africa.

“The Catholic Church was an obvious choice for [international donors] to partner with, because it was already there, already integrated into local communities, and therefore trusted by local communities,” Father Vitillo says. “We made a good and simple pitch: It’s cost effective to work with us.”

There was also another factor that made the church attractive to Mr. Bush’s PEPFAR program in particular — its all-out commitment to sexual abstinence.

In 2008, local Jesuit priests hired Mr. Lunda to take on the church’s relief program in the Kasungu region. Using European donor funds, they bought a new Land Rover and staffed Lunda with a local nurse and nutritionist. Every day, the team jolted down narrow dirt roads to the region’s most far-flung villages, where they visited patients, ran support groups, doled out food aid from local Catholic parishes, and made house-calls to the very sickest. 

Often, Lunda says, the church found that local relief programs were already in progress, and simply chipped in funds to keep them going. Just outside Kayesa, for instance, a small, steely-eyed woman named Faucita Banda has, since 2004, been running a cooperative farm staffed by HIV-positive women and AIDS orphans, who shared a cluster of huts at its fringes. Lunda began bringing the women seeds, and helped to drill them a well.

“This is not about teaching people to become Catholics. The act of doing good, that’s how we let people know what our church is about,” he says.

The work has tested the church in central ways, particularly its opposition to the use of condoms, one of the most championed public health methods for reducing the transmission of HIV.  

“Here in Malawi, because of AIDS, we know we must talk of condoms — there is no running from that,” says Lunda, the AIDS relief worker in Kasungu. “When we have healthy Christians, our churches are full. When they are sick, they do not come.”

For Anthony Egan, a theologian with the Jesuit Institute of South Africa, the issue is dealing with the immediate conditions on the ground. 

“The truth is, we are very far away from Rome,” he says. “In the pastoral experience of most priests and bishops in Africa, what you quickly come to realize is that all the pious theology in the world simply can’t make moral sense in the face of real and deep human suffering.”

Indeed, in November 2010, then-Pope Benedict XVI declared that under certain circumstances, condom use was permissible — appearing to walk back the Vatican’s 1968 degree that all artificial contraception was “inherently evil.”

 "AIDS cannot be solved only by the distribution of condoms,” Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s spokesman, quickly explained. "At the same time, the pope … believes that the use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection is a 'first step on the road to a more human sexuality,' rather than not to use it and risking the lives of others.”

Ms. Simpwalo's advice

On a recent afternoon in the main examination room of the HIV clinic she manages at Nazareth House, a sprawling orphanage and hospice in the center of Johannesburg, South Africa, Sylvia Simpwalo repeats the counsel she gives daily to her clients.

“If you are married and your partner has HIV and you do not, then you must use a condom. There is no other choice,” she says.

Ms. Simpwalo’s clinic sits in the center of a sunny courtyard, flanked on either side by an AIDS orphanage and a hospice. Every day, she says, is a reminder of the way the entire course of a person’s life can be turned on its head by one careless decision.

But condoms still present her with a moral challenge.

“Sometimes when people use condoms, they feel too free, like they can have sex with anyone,” she says. “So we still must teach people the right way to use them, the right situations.”

But a far bigger issue, she says, is the question of how not to lose the progress that this and other Catholic AIDS charities have made over decades.  

Until 2012, Simpwalo recalls brightly, her clinic saw 3,500 patients each month. That year, however, their PEPFAR funding was slashed, part of a wider move by the United States to shift responsibility for AIDS treatment fully into the hands of South Africa’s government. The country now funds more than 80 percent of its own HIV relief work, threatening the future of faith-based institutions like the Nazareth House clinic. Simpwalo says her facility  — whose walls are plastered with signs reading “welcome to the clinic of hope and love” — now has just 300 regular clients.

“I’m worried for the care they’re receiving at government hospitals,” she says of her former patients. “Some of them have a good quality of care, but some do not.”

She is also concerned about something less tangible: a sense of connection between the health of the body and the health of the spirit, and the prudence of treating both together. 

“The question for us [the church] has always been, how do you help these people [infected with HIV] live a human life?” says Stuart Bate, the former grand chancellor at St. Joseph’s Theological Institute in South Africa. “It’s not a question simply of blood going ‘round in your body. It’s a question of the humanity and dignity of the life you live.”

This story was reported with support from the Ford Foundation.

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Pope Francis endorses pioneering work of HIV-AIDS researcher. 19/03/2015

Published at Radio Vaticana
12 March 2015

Dr Julio Montaner, director of the British Colombia Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS - RV

(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis has given the ‘thumbs up’ to the ground-breaking work of a leading Argentinian-Canadian doctor who pioneered the use of Antiretroviral drugs to treat and prevent HIV infections. Dr Julio Montaner, who is director of the British Colombia Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS and a special advisor to the UNAIDS programme, met with the Pope and other top Vatican officials on Wednesday to seek support for the goal of extending the life-saving treatments to as many HIV-infected people as possible over the next five years.

Montaner, who was the founding researcher for the HIV department at St Paul’s hospital in the University of British Colombia, revealed that the UN is shortly expected to announce it has achieved its Millennium Development Goal of reversing the spread of HIV by 2015. He told Philippa Hitchen the Catholic Church continues to play a vital role in the work of rolling out improved treatment and care to the poorest and most marginalised communities….


Dr Montaner explained how, with the support of the provincial government in British Columbia, his team was able to discover and implement the so-called Antiretroviral ‘triple therapy cocktail’ which stopped the progression of HIV infection to AIDS and premature death. The result, he said, is that a young person who becomes infected with HIV today can be treated with these drugs and have a near normal life expectancy of around 75 years.

An even bigger breakthrough came , Dr Montaner continued, when researchers noticed that, despite increases in risky sexual behaviour among HIV-infected persons, the rate of new infections among those treated with the ARV drugs continued to decrease. This lead them to the conclusion that the treatment was not only stopping progression of the disease but also stopping transmission of the once-deadly HIV virus.

Dr Montaner also said the UNAIDS agency is expected to announce shortly that the Millennium Development Goal of having 15 million people on Antiretroviral treatment by 2015 has been met. Looking ahead to the year 2020, he said the new target is to have 90% of HIV-infected people worldwide diagnosed, with 90% of them on treatment and 90% of them showing a suppression of the HIV virus.

Dr Montaner added that the Catholic Church, with its proven outreach to the poorest and most isolated communities, is a vital partner in this work. Pope Francis, he said, gave the ‘thumbs up’ during the meeting he had to explain about these new goals of treatment and prevention. Dr Montaner said the hope is that the lessons learned in this fight against the AIDS pandemic can also be applied to the struggle against other infectious diseases, especially in the developing world.

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