Dec 12, 2008 News
By Melanie Allicock
Against the backdrop that faith-based leadership plays an influential role in efforts to stop the spread of hiv and supports those living with the disease, a national coalition of faith leaders of all denominations has been formed to address hiv-related stigma and discrimination.
Yesterday leaders from the Hindu, Christian, Islamic, Rastafarian and Baha’i faiths established the ‘Guyana National faith-and-hiv Coalition’ at the National Conference on faith and hiv held at the International Conference Center at Liliendaal on the East Coast of Demerara. The leaders also called on all faith leaders in the country to address hiv across all religions.
Three internationally renowned faith leaders and scholars, Professor Akhtarul Wasey and Swami Agnivesh from India, and Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha from Uganda, inspirational and motivational advocates who condemn hiv-related exclusion and discrimination, joined their local religious counterparts at the conference.
In welcoming the participants and setting the tone for the conference, Health Minister Dr. Leslie Ramsammy emphasized the importance of faith based organizations taking on a more active role in the fight.
He pointed to the results of a recent survey which revealed that only 50 percent of such organizations fully support persons living with hiv/aids (PLWHA).
According to him, 65 percent felt that PLWHA were rightfully being punished for some sin they had committed, while 25 percent were not too keen about persons who have alternative sexual orientations.
Only 20 percent felt that ‘the church’ was a place to educate on issues dealing with hiv and aids.
“ That’s why there was global sloth in the hiv response during the 1980’s which is partly responsible for some of the problems we are facing now… we stood silently by because the virus was working through mechanisms which we were uncomfortable with, so it was easier to stigmatise persons, families, communities and even entire societies which were affected.”
Canon Gideon Byamugisha was the first practicing hiv-positive leader in Africa to publicly declare his status. He has since dedicated his life to breaking hiv-related stigma, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and mis-action.
He emphasized to faith leaders yesterday the importance of reminding their followers that hiv is anti-God and as such doing everything possible to stem the tide of the disease is “what God wants.”
“Hiv is anti-God because it reduces the quality and quantity of God’s creation, destroys the economy and leaves children as orphans many times with no one to care for them.”
The view that stigmatizing individuals, families, communities and nations because of their status is a sin and is sinful, Byamugisha believes should also be impressed by the leaders on their followers.
“It is important for us to understand that becoming infected and dying can happen to anyone regardless of age, sexual orientation, educational background, social standing or spirituality. We need to love, support and empower rather than scorn, abuse and cast blame.”
He also called for the improved dissemination of accurate and adequate information regarding the disease in religious houses, adding that every person without the benefit of such information are ‘at risk.’
“We are at a time when we have the resources and the science to combat this scourge, all that is lacking is the total commitment of everyone to get involved. Hiv is preventable and aids is manageable, and if God is for us, who will be against us- not even aids.”
Jihad against hiv
Professor Akhtarul Wasey, an alumnus of a premier Muslim educational institution in India, believes that the time has come to wage a jihad against hiv.
He however noted that while hiv is dangerous, more perilous is the stigma and discrimination being perpetuated against the disease.
He called on Muslims to follow the teachings of Allah and show compassion. “How can we say we are Muslims and not behave in a compassionate manner against our brothers and sisters that are ill… condemnation is Allah’s job, not ours… people should be allowed to live a life of dignity,” he urged.
Meanwhile, Swami Agnivesh expressed optimism that yesterday’s event marked the beginning of a new response which has the potential to cause a dent in the transmission of the virus.
He reminded that God is tantamount to truth, love, compassion and justice and that no one can boast of being ‘Godly’ if they fail to exhibit these attributes.
He posited that faith leaders should hold themselves accountable when persons in their communities exhibit mindsets that are overtly contrary to God’s will.
“Religion is meant to bring people together, not drive them apart and if this is happening, something is very wrong… Remember the story of the woman in the bible that the persons wanted to kill because they deemed her ungodly? Remember what Jesus asked her? Who among us is without sin cast the first stone.”
He urged the leaders to get more actively involved in country programmes, rather than just preaching from the pulpits.
Noting that hiv transmission is linked to unsafe sex especially among youths, Swami Agnivesh urged the use of yoga and medication as a means of channeling energy in a positive direction.
Sir George Alleyne, United Nations Advisor and Special Envoy to the United Nations Secretary General, on AIDS in the Caribbean, in delivering the keynote address, noted that the critical importance of faith based organizations (FBOs) in addressing the HIV epidemic has been recognized and lauded repeatedly internationally, regionally, as well as nationally.
“It would seem very logical for FBOs to be active in the field of hiv because of the advantages they possess.
Their reach is greater than any other non-governmental organization, thus permitting access to the vast majority if not the totality of the population.
The respect with which they are held and the credibility built up over the ages make them powerful and influential voices in the ethical, moral and legal debates and the human resources and infrastructure on which they can call make them formidable agents for disseminating information and changing behaviours.”
He noted that they have been active from time immemorial in treating the ill, and the relief as well as the acceptance of pain and suffering caused by illness has been the basis of much religious action and thought for centuries.
“I have always been impressed that whereas many of the faith based or religious organizations have grave differences related to various particular aspects of dogma, they have little difficulty in coming together to care for and comfort the ill and being universally compassionate when in the extreme case, they help many to die with dignity.”
Declaration of commitment
As part of the declaration of commitment signed by the faith leaders, they have committed not to directly or indirectly promote or condone language or actions that will cause hiv-related stigma, resulting in discrimination against people living with or affected by hiv and to commit to ensure that the faith leadership, at all levels, is equipped with relevant information to help guide the reduction of hiv infections and to address hiv-related stigma and discrimination.
The leaders also commit to working towards overcoming hiv in an inclusive manner, and for this purpose, mobilise the human, spiritual, institutional and financial resources that their communities possess, and work closely with other organisations involved in treatment, care and support of people living with and affected by hiv.
The leaders also affirmed the full realisation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, regardless of their hiv status, is an essential element of the faith.
The conference is a collaborative effort between the National aids Programme Secretariat and the Joint United Nations Programme on hiv/aids and was held under the theme “ Lead, Deliver, Empower” “
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