Religious Leaders Unite to Tackle AIDS in Africa

Sixteen faith-based organizations in the African nation of Mozambique have united to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic, coming up with a national action plan
( [email protected] ) Oct 12, 2004 04:54 PM EDT

Sixteen faith-based organizations in the African nation of Mozambique have united to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic, coming up with a national action plan. As about 10 million of the country's 18 million people are members of an organized religion—ranging from Christians and Muslims to those of the Bahai faith—many feel religious leaders could play a major role in tackling the epidemic.

Last week, the Faith-based Organizations (FBOs) agreed on an action plan that includes initiatives to care for orphans and other children affected by the epidemic, as well as supporting adults living with AIDS-related illnesses. The plan will be supported by the various ministries and a range of donors.

"Faith-based Organizations (FBOs) can make a big difference if they are involved and given the tools," said Mohamad Yassine, coordinator of the World Conference of Religion for Peace (WCRP) in Mozambique.

With the assistance of WCRP, UNAIDS and the UN Children's Fund, the action plan will kick off in mid-November with a training of trainers program on HIV/AIDS. The program will start with 60 leaders in southern Mozambique, as part of an ongoing process that will be expanded to include the central region in February, and the north of the country in April.

Yassine, who believes training is essential, said that although most religious leaders now know about HIV/AIDS, "they haven't all been open about it.”

“All religions need to speak about it in their services, in their communities and in schools,” Yassine added. “They should also make sure there is no stigmatization of those living with HIV; they should always welcome those living with HIV."

An estimated 500 people are infected with the virus each day, and to date the epidemic has shown no indication of abating. Recently Mozambique announced an upsurge in HIV/AIDS prevalence rates from 13.6 percent last year to 14.9 percent this year.

During a Sept. 25 – Oct. 1 meeting of Presbyterian Church leaders from over ten African countries, Bishop Mvume Dandala, the General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), told those gathered that HIV/AIDS is a pandemic that has the capacity to clear the continent.

Dandala urged churches to have HIV/AIDS education as a priority stating that there was an urgent need to give priority to issues affecting the youth who, if well mentored, are the immediate hope for an HIV/AIDS-free generation.

Although the reality is that young people are having sex before they married, Yassine stated, "We should not use the condom as a propaganda item; we should not liberalize condoms; we should not distribute them among young people and say use them and you are safe. We rather want behavior change.”

Another major activity of the religious leaders will be caring for children who have been affected by the epidemic, including orphans and children living with HIV. In Mozambique over 270,000 children have either lost one parent or both to HIV/AIDS, and over 80,000 children are living with the virus.

Yassine said religious leaders needed resources to make sure affected children were well cared for by alternative families in their communities. Because most families are poor, such children will need support, especially food and education.

"Religious leaders should be responsible for these children,” Yassine said. “We need to protect them from abuse and discrimination and bring back the African tradition that the child belongs to the community,"

Religious leaders have already been caring for those living with AIDS-related illnesses. "At the moment they are doing it from their heart," he said. "We need to train them so they themselves do not get infected."