Priest Sets Up Network for HIV-Positive Clerics

An Anglican priest who tested HIV-positive has co-founded a support network for religious leaders that is active in four countries.

The African Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV/Aids - which provides " non-judgemental" support to HIV-positive clerics - has 500 members in eight African countries including South Africa.

Johannesburg-based the Rev Japé Heath, who was diagnosed in 2000 with full- blown Aids, said his feelings of "intense loneliness and isolation" had prompted him to set up the network.

"I was at a meeting where a Ugandan priest stood in front of everybody and said he was an Anglican priest living with HIV. For the first time I knew that I wasn't alone."

Since declaring his status, Heath said his congregation and his bishop had been extremely supportive.

Thanks to antiretroviral treatment, he said he was leading a healthy, normal life.

The network, which he set up with a Ugandan priest, has embraced all faiths, Heath said, because "HIV can be bigger than the church but not bigger than God".

In Uganda, for example, the local chairman is an Anglican bishop and his deputy a Muslim cleric.

"We say to people that the question of how you came to live with HIV isn't important but how you are living with it is," Heath said.

He added that the traditional attitude of the religious community towards Aids had been that sex equalled sin and Aids equalled sex.

Heath said that religious leaders who discovered their status had difficulty dealing with it and living openly with HIV.

His organisation, he said, did not demand that ministers disclose their status but supported them in their "journey to acceptance".

"Disclosure is a process where you come to full acceptance and can be open.

"We have a number of ministers who are open and a number who are still working it out within themselves," he said. However, those who disclosed their status appreciated being able to talk to colleagues about it. "You just see people come out of their shells and you see them live again for the first time because, for so long, there had been this secret."

Heath said the prevalence of HIV among religious leaders was not all that different from the prevalence in general society.

"Religious leaders are human beings; they are exposed to similar vulnerabilities as the rest of society," he said.