FAITH communities are often seen as an obstacle to the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS but according to a new report they are crucial partners in responding to the disease.
Traditional teaching on sexual abstinence before marriage and the stigma of sexually transmitted disease has in the past led to faith leaders not communicating the importance of condom use, especially in countries with high HIV rates, noted a news release from Christian Aid, a London-based organization that works to combat poverty around the world.
However, thanks to peer-led awareness training for faith leaders, the Church is now becoming an important partner in tackling stigmatizing attitudes towards people living with and affected by HIV, said the report by development consultants Plurpol, based in Auckland, New Zealand.
It gave the example of Canon Gideon Byamugisha, a prominent church leader who lives with HIV and a Christian Aid ambassador who has been praised for shedding light on previously taboo areas of sexual health and cultural stigma.
Byamugisha is a founding member of an international network of around 10,000 religious leaders living with, or personally affected, by HIV.
The report highlighted the huge influence faith leaders possess in their communities and the importance of using this to educate their congregations, Christian Aid reports.
"[The] Rev. Joseph Njakai, an Anglican priest based at Daystar University [in Nairobi, Kenya], was under no illusions about his power and influence. He suggested that when he speaks to a congregation to persuade them to accept people living with HIV rather than reject them, that perhaps 50 percent will hear and understand him, while the other 50 percent accept his words solely as 'blind faith,' meaning that they do not genuinely believe what he says, but they accept it anyway because he is a recognized religious authority," the report said.
The report's emphasis on the constructive role of the Church in this area echoed comments by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams last month at an event with Christian Aid at Lambeth Palace.
"Some of the most important work done by Christian Aid in partnership with the Church has to do with the HIV/Aids pandemic and its long-term fallout," he said.
"The perceptions which have to be changed are as often as not about stigma and exclusion. And frankly if the churches and other faith communities can't transform that, nobody can. When that begins to move all kinds of things begin to open up in the most creative way," he said.
Responding to the report, which examined the effectiveness of Christian Aid's support for faith-based responses to HIV, Ray Hasan, the organization's head of community health and HIV said: "We are encouraged by the affirmation of the critical role that faith leaders are playing in increasing awareness of HIV and reducing HIV-related stigma.
"We are also pleased to hear of the profound impact this role has on people's attitudes towards HIV testing, their ability to seek treatment and care and the collective support that communities provide.
"The organization recognizes the need to continue to strengthen the role of religious peer educators and accepts that the current impact is constrained by limited scale," he said.
Christian Aid is a member of Geneva-based ACT Alliance, a global coalition of 125 churches and church-related organizations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy and development.