WEST AFRICA: When religious leaders talk about AIDS
- From: IRIN <IRIN@...>
Date: Wed, 30 Nov 2005 11:40:13 GMT
Subject: WEST AFRICA: When religious leaders talk about AIDS
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WEST AFRICA: When religious leaders talk about AIDS
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Controversy of Female Genital Mutilation. The Web Special, Razor's
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DAKAR, 28 November (IRIN) - 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
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
ADAPTING THE MESSAGE
In mainly Catholic Burundi, the Church got involved soon after the
first case of AIDS in 1988. Muslim leaders followed suit a few years
"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
"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
"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.
A WELCOME BREAKTHROUGH
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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