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Ugandan and Bolivian infected with HIV establish programs

With African churches burying more people than they baptize because of HIV and AIDS, Sue Parry, coordinator of the Ecumenical HIV/AIDS Initiative in Africa, works to “build an AIDS-competent church.” 

At the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in February in Brazil, Sue spoke with a panel of others on HIV and AIDS. 

Sue Parry

She said that HIV and AIDS should be mainstreamed as a justice issue, crossing poverty, gender, economic and trade issues:  “The 14 million people who live with HIV or AIDS affect other people in their families, communities, societies and the world.”

Ugandan Anglican Canon Gideon Byamugisha, co-founder of the African Network for Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS (ANERELA+), and Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga, a human rights activist in Bolivia, told of their experiences of living with HIV and AIDS.

Gideon believes speaking of HIV and AIDS, not HIV/AIDS, will help address response.

“HIV is the virus.  AIDS results when people lack access to medicines to help them sustain life,” he said.

ANERELA, an interfaith network of nearly 1,400 Christians, Muslims, Baha’i and African indigenous churches, helps members accept themselves—through fellowship, mutual support and empowerment—and break the silence to overcome 1) self stigma that drives people into suffering and shame; 2) societal stigma that excludes people from opportunities and a livelihood, and 3) faith-based stigma that arises from negative, moralistic messages.

Gideon Byamugisha

By breaking the silence, they build awareness and advocate for prevention, care, support, treatment and behavior change.

ANERELA urges that churches take seriously people who have HIV or AIDS, dealing with both their human rights and their needs, said Gideon.

In 1992, he learned he was HIV positive and began treatment.

“I hope my life symbolizes that HIV is treatable,” he said.  “I lost my first wife to AIDS.  Now I’m remarried. Being aware, I can prevent transmission.  AIDS is preventable and manageable.”

He could have kept his infection quiet, so it wouldn’t be a stumbling block.  Instead, he chose to be open in order to break down stigma, shame and denial.

Gideon said that “morality is not just what is right or legal but also what is safe.”

In Bolivia, Gracia said there is no church program.  Since learning she is infected, she has helped start a self-help group, People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), working as a volunteer.

Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga

Walking home from a dance one night in 1998, she was raped by two men in an alley near her home.  She contracted HIV. 

“I knew God loved me, but I found it hard to accept myself as a person with HIV and then AIDS,” she said.  “Now I rely on God, because no one can help me.  It’s dreadful to experience sexual violence in a country that has no way to deal with HIV or AIDS.

“Now I see how God’s grace can transform the world,” she said, calling for people to take seriously the church’s commitment to love others.

Her parents named her Gracia, because of their belief that God’s grace enables people to be saved.  As a rebellious teen, the pastor’s daughter began using her second name, Violeta, and ignored God’s commandments.

Seeking love, she had many boyfriends.  Her parents tried to keep her home and prayed for her.  While she knew how to prevent pregnancy, she was unaware of the risk of AIDS.

While she was doing research for a thesis on micro-enterprise loans in a village, a mosquito bite became infected. When she went to be tested for malaria, her sister suggested they test for HIV, too.  It came back positive. 

Gracia was depressed a long time, expecting rejection. Instead, when she told her parents, they received her with open arms, ready to support her until her last day.

“Their love reflects God’s love,” Gracia said. “I realize that not even AIDS could separate me from God’s love.  I no longer worry how long I will live.”

Now working with other people living with HIV and AIDS, she knows many die alone, abandoned by their families.  As she learned about the illness, she has put aside prejudices about causes. 

Knowing Jesus touched and healed lepers, who faced discrimination then, PLWHA works on prevention and advocacy, assists the ill and informs families, community groups and government.

Renu Chahil-Graf

Renu Chahil-Graf, UNAIDS manager in Brazil, said the United Nations believes churches and faith organizations play a key role in  preventing and reducing the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Their efforts include: 1) prevention education by churches; 2) advocacy with people who live with AIDS, and 3) economic empowerment so people with HIV or AIDS can be productive.

Renu said anti-retrovirals have created a new complacency among Americans and Europeans, reducing advocacy and education. 

“Both need to be sustained for each new generation,” she said.

Jape Heath, co-founder and leader of ANERELA in South Africa, challenges the idea that people brought it on themselves.

Jape Heath

“Poverty, gender, vulnerability of children, mother-child transmission and lack of access to accurate information are factors,” Jape said.  

“To prevent it, we must deal with it holistically, promoting safe practices related to sex, drugs and blood transfusions,” Jape continued.  “Voluntary testing and counseling are imperative, so people know their status.  It’s best to be faithful, but those who are not should be tested.  Otherwise, they deceive people with false security. Contraception is only one means of prevention.”

For information, visit the World Council of Churches page about HIV-AIDS in 2006