Church Introduces Mandatory HIV Testing for Pastors

( [email protected] ) Dec 16, 2003 10:57 AM EST

The Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe, a grouping of 150 Pentecostal and evangelical churches, has embarked on a historic mandatory HIV testing for all its pastors, marriage officers, and couples.

The testing for pastors and marriage officers has already commenced, while testing for couples will start in January next year.

Despite having one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world, Zimbabwe outlaws the mandatory HIV testing.

However, anti-HIV/AIDS campaigners say the proposed measures may provide Africa with a new way of fighting the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

They argue that thousands of Africans infected with the virus are dying prematurely because they cannot seek early treatment, for fear of being discriminated against.

According to Bishop Trevor Mananga, a member of the Pentecoastal Assemblies, Church leaders resolved at their annual conference recently, to adopt what "pragmatic measures" to check the spread of pandemic.

He said the Church has a major role to play in fighting stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, and Africa in general.

"Although this might sound rather controversial, discriminatory and infringing on individuals' rights, we felt that the only way we could effectively fight this pandemic was through adoption of more pragmatic and practical measures," Rev Mananga said.

"Church leaders who daily preach to and counsel church members on various issues, including HIV/AIDS, have to set the pace and lead by example and avoid the notion of 'do as I say, and not as I do'," he added.

He said all church leaders under the Pentecostal assemblies of Zimbabwe, pastors and marriage officers have set the ball rolling by going for HIV tests, which should be completed by the end of the year, before the programme is extended to would-be married couples with effect from January 2004.

According to the bishop, it is absurd for a marriage officer or pastor within a church to sit and counsel would-be married couples on HIV/AIDS issues, when they (the counsellors) were not aware of their own status.

All pastors, marriage officers and couples who will have gone for testing will be issued with some form of certification that they were tested and counselled. Marriage officers without this certification would not be allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies.

Since the passing of the resolution, pastors have embarked on vigorous awareness and education campaigns on the new practice.

A pastor with one of the affiliate churches in Bulawayo, said in an interview last week that the exercise has been well-received in his church, and a number of couples have already undergone pre-marriage testing and counselling.

"Just two weeks after the resolution was passed, we have a number of would-be couples who have responded positively to the call and more members who have been informed of the exercise are joining the church by each day, contrary to views that this would scare away church members," said the pastor, who asked for anonymity.

People interviewed on the issue expressed mixed feelings with some saying the new policy on HIV/AIDS testing introduced by the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe was discriminatory and infringed on personal liberties.

Zimbabwe has a number of HIV/AIDS voluntary testing centres but activists say people are still reluctant to know their status as the disease still carries a lot of stigma.

However, recent statistics released by the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare indicate that HIV/AIDS infections in Zimbabwe declined from 33 percent to 24.6 percent this year, reflecting the success of various awareness campaigns.

In the past, churches in Zimbabwe have played a peripheral role in the fight against the pandemic and the initiative taken by the Pentecostals might be a harbinger for a more active role in the campaign against the world's highest killer disease.