“When the pandemic started, the churches and the faith-based community as a whole took a wrong approach that was not helpful. There were some faith-based communities that saw HIV and AIDS as a punishment from God and they did not want to be involved in it. There were some faith-based communities that saw their responsibilities as that of just caring for those people who were affected… so, really they were involved from the word go! I think they did wrong. Their approach was not helpful. The approach they took made those people who were infected to be stigmatised, to be discriminated against. Today, we see the impact of that”, said Loe-Rose Mbise of the Young Women’s Christian Association, in Tanzania, in an interview on the sidelines of the meeting.
At the meeting, church leaders spoke out about the silence and judgmental stance that characterized their response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic. The church resolved to amend its ways.
“Whereas it is true that we started with the silence when HIV/AIDS came or with the condemnation, we have moved from that. We’ve started responding. We are at a level of full engagement and now we are seeking the competency tools to help us. Many churches and church leaders have said: “Yes, this is our battle. We need to do something”. And now we are at a stage where we are looking at competence in terms of accurate information, skills building for communication and programming and monitoring and evaluation, service provision and supportive environments from our governments”, said Uganda-based United Nations’ Goodwill ambassador on HIV and AIDS and the first African clergy-man to publicaly disclose that he was HIV-positive, Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha.
“In African wisdom, if you don’t know what to say it is better to keep quiet. This disease came… It was a new phenomenon. We hadn’t learnt it in our theological colleges; it was not in our liturgy, the Bible was not talking about it explicitly. So, the first encounter with something you are not sure about is to keep quiet”, Byamugisha said when asked why the church chose to be silent on the issue of HIV and AIDS.
But while the church has acknowledged its faults and some denominations have individually apologised for their role in fuelling AIDS-related fear, stigma and discrimination, some suggest that the church should offer a collective apology.
“It is important to do that because if we want the message of the church to be clear, we shouldn’t forget what the church has done: If that is not corrected it will be confusing to the believers, to the members of the churches and to the community as a whole. So, it is important really to take it out. It brings integrity to the churches and it brings integrity to the leadership of the church”, argued Loe-Rose Mbise of Tanzania’s Young Women’s Christian Association.
The meeting recognized that all are at risk of HIV infection. Thus, the church needs to pay particular focus on the compassionate role it should play in responding to HIV and AIDS.
“(There are) two roles for the church: Comforting the agitated and agitating the comfortable… There are people who think “AIDS doesn’t concern me, it belongs there, I’m born again, I’m saved, I’m faithful, so when you talk of testing, what do you mean?” So, we as the church and church leaders have a role to agitate them to know that they are equally at risk”, said Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha.
The meeting, under the banner of CUAHA, Churches United Against HIV and AIDS in eastern and southern Africa,brought together 40 churches and affiliated organisations from across the continent. The meeting concluded that the church needs to be relevant and in tune with the communities and societies in which they work and live and to be prepared to rise up to the challenges of the day, such as HIV and AIDS.
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