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WEST AFRICA: When religious leaders talk about AIDS

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  • George Lessard in Bolivia
    From: IRIN Date: Wed, 30 Nov 2005 11:40:13 GMT Subject: WEST AFRICA: When religious leaders talk about AIDS U N I T E D N A T I O N S
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      From: IRIN <IRIN@...>
      Date: Wed, 30 Nov 2005 11:40:13 GMT
      Subject: WEST AFRICA: When religious leaders talk about AIDS

      U N I T E D N A T I O N S
      Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
      Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN)

      WEST AFRICA: When religious leaders talk about AIDS

      [The following article is part of an IRIN Web Special on the
      Controversy of Female Genital Mutilation. The Web Special, Razor's
      Edge, is available at:
      http://www.irinnews.org/webspecials/FGM/default.asp ]



      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
      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."

      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
      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.

      BUILDING BRIDGES

      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.

      [ENDS]

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