COTE D IVOIRE: Muslims seek to break down prejudice by speaking out on HIV/AIDS
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
ABIDJAN, 17 May (PLUSNEWS) - In a town hall meeting room in the Ivorian capital earlier this month, women assembled on one side and men on the other, joined together in a prayer to Allah "to remove AIDS from humanity".
The crowd of around 100 Muslim men and women had turned out at the Treichville town hall in Cote d'Ivoire's economic capital Abidjan for one of a series of conferences aimed at discussing Islam's position on HIV/AIDS.
The talks, taking place in different neighbourhoods of the city, are being organised by the Coordination of Nigerian Muslims in Cote d'Ivoire (COMONACI).
"Many of you believe HIV/AIDS doesn't exist, others think that talking about it is taboo because it concerns - excuse me - sex," said Mufutahu Saka, one of the organisers of the talks that began 10 April and will end 21 May.
"We organised this programme to save lives," he added.
The Sunday evening conference, like all the COMONACI lectures, was held in Yoruba, the main language used in Southwestern Nigeria, and in French, the official language of Cote d'Ivoire, so that other local Muslims could also understand.
"Even imams can be HIV-positive," said Imam Cisse Djiguiba. "AIDS concerns everyone, even believers who don't know how to protect themselves."
One of those present in the audience, 25-year-old technician Mamadou Ganyou, said he showed up because it was the first time the Muslim community had addressed the problem of AIDS.
"The world is in danger, so a believer must act differently, but first he needs to be made aware of the paths to follow," he told PlusNews.
Cote d'Ivoire has West Africa's HIV/AIDS figures. Five-year-old official statistics put the HIV prevalence rate at seven percent, but recent studies by several NGOs indicate that it is nearer 10 percent, particularly in the rebel-held north of the country.
COMONACI secretary Wahabi Oyelade said the talks aimed to underline the alarming spread of the epidemic in Cote d'Ivoire, which has been in the grip of civil war for nearly three years.
The organisers also hoped to help Muslims understand Islam's position on HIV/AIDS, he stressed.
Imam Djiguiba told the audience that "the Muslim religion expects sexual relations to take place within the framework of marriage and demands abstinence during youth."
"You will have to take an HIV test prior to marriage and you will not transmit AIDS," he added.
Protection against HIV infection has been raised at the talks, with Imam Alimi Miftahudeen telling the Treichville crowd that "condoms are used by those who practice debauchery but should also be advised in the case of a couple where one of the two is infected."
Asked whether it was difficult to bring up such issues for the first time in public, Imam Miftahudeen told PlusNews: "I'm not embarrassed, this is to save lives."
It was regrettable that up until now the subject of AIDS generally came up only at funerals, Imam Djiguiba said. "Now we want to make people aware while they are still alive."
"People must use condoms, but this isnít an excuse to commit sin. If you have the virus you must come to see us and we will help with verses from the Koran."
One young woman, Fatoumata Nassirou, who is pregnant with her first child, said she attended the lecture "to learn more about AIDS but specially to find out how Islam deals with the issue."
"When you watch TV they say that if you're HIV-positive and have lost hope you should give your life up to Jesus. But what about Muslims? Islamic programmes never mention AIDS."
The COMONACI lectures are backed by the Higher Council of Imams, the National Islamic Council and the government's Ministry of AIDS, but they have not attracted any financial support from donors.
"Our greatest challenge is to succeed in interesting the maximum possible number of Muslims in the battle against AIDS," said Saka, who is one of the organisers.
COMONACI now plans to set up a special AIDS awareness programme for imams. This would be particularly useful in northern Cote d'Ivoire, where most of the country's Muslims live and where the pandemic has been spiralling out of hand since the civil war began.
Testing centres have been closed and many clinics and hospitals virtually closed since September 2002, when the country split in two, with the rebels in control of the north and government forces holding the south.