In-depth: Beyond ABC: The challenge of Prevention

WEST AFRICA: When religious leaders talk about AIDS

Photo: IRIN
Religious leaders are coming on board
Dakar, 14 November 2005 (IRIN In-Depth) - West Africa's religious leaders are becoming more willing to discuss HIV/AIDS with their followers. But what happens when such discussions threaten people's moral values?

Many religious leaders have long associated AIDS with sin and divine retribution and have tended to shy away from the subject, but they are now beginning to understand that they can play an important role in curbing the spread of the virus in the region.

According to the UN, the average infection rate across West Africa is about five percent, making it a 'generalised' epidemic that affects all segments of society, not only the so-called 'at-risk' populations.

"Religious leaders have a responsibility toward the population and society," said El-Hadji Oumar Diene, secretary-general of the Great Mosque in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

West Africa is home to most of the continent's 150 million Muslims, but the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations also hold a great deal of influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

In predominantly Muslim Senegal it is important to many people that their religious leaders become more involved in awareness campaigns.

"If your parents talk about HIV prevention it goes in one ear and out the other," said Mohamed Diallo, a young Senegalese Muslim who is also a single father. "But if the imam talks about it, everyone listens because it's a matter of faith."

The involvement of Africa's religious leaders has followed a variety of paths: in Senegal and Burundi the impetus has come from the religious communities themselves; in Benin and Nigeria the government has provided active encouragement; in Mauritania, AIDS groups got the ball rolling.

According to Abdulaye Ba of the Association for Integrated and Diversified Development in Mauritania (ADID), a local NGO, it took some "fancy footwork" to get religious leaders involved in HIV prevention efforts, but in the space of 18 months ADID trained 75 of the 115 imams in the main northeastern port city Nouadhibou.

"We started from the premise that human life is sacred, and protecting it is of fundamental importance," he said. "The religious leaders came on board when they realised that AIDS could be contracted in hospital, and that the head of state, imams, educated people could all catch it. Before, they had only connected it with sex."


In mainly Catholic Burundi, the Church got involved soon after the first case of AIDS in 1988. Muslim leaders followed suit a few years later.

"There were awareness campaigns in the media but they weren't reaching Muslim families," said Haruna Nkunduwiga, secretary-general of the Muslim Community of Burundi (COMIBU).

"It was necessary to adapt the messages to Muslim values," he explained. Regardless of religion, the medium or choice of words, the message is the same: abstinence for single people and fidelity for those who are married - "staying 'clean' in the religious sense of the word" - meaning no adultery, according to Mamadou Soya Watt, imam at the Ksar Mosque in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Ever-watchful, religious leaders are especially so when it comes to following the government's lead. In Benin, the Catholic Church opted not to be involved in the community action plan launched by the government in 2003 as part of its Multi-sector Project for the Fight Against AIDS (PPLS).

"The Catholic Church believes that the struggle against AIDS needs to have a holistic vision of the individual, which includes moral requirements," said Father Raymond Bernard Goudjo, theologian for the Archbishopric of Cotonou, Benin.

"When addressing AIDS, the PPLS focuses on its economic and technical aspects but never on morality and tradition," he said.

The Catholic Church was involved in the fight against AIDS, Goudjo said, but "through its own means and moral principles".

Religious leaders involved in HIV prevention efforts rely on their holy texts - the Qu'ran for Muslims and the Bible for Christians - to get their message across, but there is consensus when it comes to condom use, a practice generally associated with sex outside of marriage.

"Condoms can prevent AIDS, not sin," said Nkunduwiga of Burundi's COMIBU.

However, among Muslims in Nigeria, Senegal and Mauritania, and Catholics in Burundi, condom use is becoming more and more accepted for so-called 'discordant' couples in which one partner is HIV-positive.

"In that case, the condom is seen as medication to avoid the other partner's infection," explained Doctor Chantal Simbiyara, who works for the Catholic NGO, Caritas, in Burundi.

"In rare cases, religious leaders talk about condoms as a way, not to prevent HIV/AIDS, but for married couples to space pregnancies out," said Abdou Idrissou, a Togolese Muslim.


Religious leaders remain divided on the issue of HIV testing. In Burundi it is mandatory for Muslims planning to get married, but optional in Senegal and Mauritania.

"Forcing someone to get tested is a violation of privacy," said Imam Watt in Mauritania. "It's a matter for each individual to decide."

Some religious leaders have sought to forge links with secular players in the fight against AIDS, in order to use all available means to limit the sometimes alarming spread of the virus in the region without violating the teachings of their faith.

A number of Senegalese imams, after preaching fidelity and abstinence, advise their congregations to get additional information.

According to Bamar Gueye, whose Muslim NGO, Jamra, focuses on AIDS and drugs, a doctor is present during HIV/AIDS awareness sessions.

"We don't promote condoms but we tell the audience, 'whether you're Christian or Muslim, you have no right to spread the disease, so ask this health specialist what you should do'," he said.

This sharing of responsibilities makes it possible to respect certain limits. "If you bring a carpenter with his hammer and nails to the hospital and tell him to operate on a patient, he won't be able to - it's the same thing with religious leaders. They stop at a certain point and a doctor takes over," Gueye pointed out.

"The Church cannot promote the body over spirituality, but other groups can teach about condoms," said Monsignor Blaise Nzeyimana, secretary-general of Caritas in Burundi. But, like that country's Muslim leaders, he finds it unfortunate that "condoms are presented as an alternative to fidelity and abstinence".

In Nigeria the interreligious forum on HIV/AIDS, which has been bringing the country's Muslim and Christian communities together since 2003, has also recommended reducing high-risk behaviours, including those based in culture and tradition, such as the marriage of a widow to her brother-in-law.


The increasing cooperation between religious and secular leaders in the fight against AIDS is widely seen as a positive development.

"We may not be able to see eye to eye on condoms, but even if the religious leaders aren't in favour of their use, they have to avoid open opposition because condoms are still the most effective form of prevention," said Ndayikengurukiye of Burundi's CNLS.

"It's this synergy that has made our prevention campaign a success," said Jamra's Gueye, pointing to Senegal's HIV infection rate, which, at about one percent, is one of Africa's lowest.
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