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ANGOLA: Churches urged to join fight against HIV/AIDS

Photo: IRIN
Church leaders in Angola have been urged to play a proactive role in fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic
Luanda, 30 January 2004 (PlusNews) - The development agency, Christian Aid, is stepping up a campaign to get church and faith leaders to join the fight against the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS in Angola.

The UK-based group plans to integrate HIV/AIDS awareness into its current post-conflict food security activities, and believes the church should play a much bigger role in helping people learn about and live with the virus, rather than fuelling the stigma and prejudice that envelops it.

Angola has an estimated adult prevalence rate of between five and seven percent - relatively low compared to many of its southern African neighbours - but UNICEF believes that only 12 percent of females aged between 15 and 24 years are armed with sufficient knowledge to protect themselves against the virus.

Bringing Angola up-to-date in terms of current HIV/AIDS awareness, particularly in the remote rural communities, is vital to curbing the spread of the disease and requires the input of civil society, and church groups in particular.

"The reality is that there is no community which does not have the support of some religious body," said the Reverend Jape Heath, who heads the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Affected by HIV and AIDS (ANERELA).

His group, which is backed by Christian Aid, took part in a conference organised by Christian Aid and the Association for Justice Peace and Democracy (AJPD), a human rights NGO, held this week in the capital, Luanda.

Heath, who is himself living with the HIV virus, told IRIN: "It doesn’t matter where that community is, how rural it is - churches are everywhere. The church has become a very effective tool in being able to reach people in the remotest areas."

In the past, certain religious leaders had often fuelled the stigma by describing AIDS as "God's punishment" for sinful behaviour.

"There's a little formula which operates in people's minds, knowingly or unknowingly, and that is, 'AIDS equals sex, equals sin, equals death'. There's immediately a stigma which says 'you must have had illicit sex, that's how you got it, that is sinful' and therefore there's a condemnation," he said.

"We in ANERELA believe very strongly that the church is responsible for much of the stigma around HIV and AIDS. It is only from within the church that we can adequately address this stigma," he added.

Rachel Baggaley, the head of Christian Aid's HIV unit, has been involved in the organisation's 156 AIDS programmes around the world.

"We've learned from experience in other countries that, actually, the church is part of the problem. Church leaders often stigmatise people living with HIV and are not compassionate or open about HIV. The church and other faith-based organisations have a massive role to play in HIV prevention and care," she told IRIN.

The conference marked a first step in Christian Aid's plans to find faith leaders living with HIV and work with them, individually or on a group basis, to teach them how to live openly with their HIV status.

"It's not ANERELA's purpose to force any religious leader to disclose their HIV status," Heath said. "What we try to do is to build their capacity as people to, firstly, accept their HIV status, understand it, and how they can live positively with their HIV status, and then train them in their congregations, their communities and their country as a whole."

Baggaley commented: "[This] can really help to break down barriers, break down the stigma and realise that HIV is not a 'them and us' situation. Everybody – in Angola or anywhere – can be at risk from HIV."

Both Baggaley and Heath were surprised at the ignorance and intolerance shown by conference participants - 30 percent thought it possible to catch HIV from a toothbrush.

"It was really quite astonishing at this meeting that a significant number of participants felt that a priest living with HIV should not perform the same duties as a priest who was not living with HIV," Baggaley said.

"Another striking thing was that there was a slightly condemnatory attitude towards people with HIV, yet a complete unwillingness to be tested. That's the kind of attitude one would have found in other countries in the region five or 10 years ago," she commented.

Bridging the knowledge gap will not be the only hurdle. Many Angolans simply have more pressing issues to deal with. "The real difficulty in Angola is that there is so much to do in every other field. People need food, people need education ... you've got every other problem," Baggaley said.

"If people are hungry, HIV that will cause them problems in 10 years time is not a priority. But in long-term development problems, if you don’t address HIV ... you will get a very significant proportion of your productive population dying."

According to Baggaley, if no steps taken now, the HIV prevalence rate could possibly rise to 20 percent or even more in the next five years. "We will have to have a really quick learning curve if we are going to prevent a rapid epidemic."

Last November, the Angolan government and the United Nations launched a national strategic plan, but ANERELA and Christian Aid said the plan would stand a better chance of success if civil society and church leaders were involved.

"There's a unique opportunity in Angola, while the prevalence is as low as it is, to make sure that it stays that way," Heath said.

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

Other OCHA Sites
United Nations - OCHA
DFID - UK Department for International Development
Irish Aid
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation - SDC