Cape Town, South Africa - Hundreds of religious leaders across the globe are living with HIV, yet are afraid to come out because of the stigma attached to it. INERELA is a network of religious leaders across the globe which gives support to faith-based communities who are afraid to talk about HIV due to the stigma.
HIV/AIDS affects everyone and the religious community is no exception. The International Network of Religious Leaders who are living with or are personally affected by HIV/AIDS (INERELA) is an organisation that offers support to some of these religious leaders. INERELA offers counselling on how to deal with stigma and disclosure.
The network is spread all over Africa in close to 20 different countries, including Zambia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana. Acting Executive Director at INERELA, Reverend JP Mokgethi-Heath, says their interventions differ according to the needs of individual faith-based communities.
"A more general intervention would be to say we have a support group of people living with HIV/AIDS in this congregation and we wish to find ways to support them. There may be a nutritional garden project, income generation programme, maybe a sustained drive to VCT within the congregation.
We also give more specialised responses like sex workers within the community where we seek to identify their vulnerability and find ways of reducing their vulnerability, not only related to their work, but to HIV. We also have congregations who are trying to specifically deal with the vulnerabilities of the girl child. So, our responses are diverse but fitting for the community concerned", he says.
Reverend Mokgethi-Heath is an Anglican priest and is HIV-positive himself. He has been living with HIV for 11 years. He says one of the major challenges that religious leaders face is stigma and discrimination. He believes that it is unfortunate that society still thinks that religious leaders can't get HIV infection. He shares an example of a recent account he had at a mobile HIV testing station.
"I went inside the unit and played along with the lady who was doing the test. She asked me when last I was tested and I told her 11 years ago, but I didn't say to her I tested positive and she said 'ooh, that's a long time for not being tested'. She related to me very much as a priest because there I was sitting in front of her, dressed as a priest. She tested me and when it was quite obvious from the rapid test that it was positive she was getting more nervous and didn't know how to cope with the situation".
He says this emphasises the pre-conceived ideas that people have relating to HIV.
"No matter how liberated we think we are the bottom line still remains that somewhere deep within our psyche we associate HIV with immorality. So, to be confronted as she was, with a religious leader who had just tested positive in front of her was too frightening to contemplate.
That shows the level of stigma. What would she have done if the religious leader sitting in front of her had never been tested, didn't know his HIV status, how would she be able to work through those emotions?" asks Mokgethi-Heath.
The Muslim community is no exception to the challenges raised by Reverend Mokgethi-Heath. Positive Muslims is an NGO based in Cape Town and services the people of the Western Cape who are either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Director of the organisation, Raoul Swart, says society puts a lot of pressure on the Muslim community about family values.
"This is where the denial comes in because there are a lot of strict guidelines put by people outside of the Muslim community and those within the Muslim community on family values and morality. Often, people think that as Muslim community they would not be placing themselves at risk of HIV because of this".
Swart says, however, there have been some small shifts in the Muslim community regarding HIV/AIDS. He says people are slowly taking a step forward towards accepting HIV in their communities.
"There has definitely been a shift in the Muslim community - in particular with people wanting to know more about HIV, people taking more responsibility for their health and realising that it's not just a simple issue, there are other factors involved with the spread of HIV. There really needs to be greater awareness because then, we can respond better to issues around HIV.
Organisations such as Positive Muslims have had greater success in reaching the community who are coming forward seeking services and asking for workshops, etc. Of late, we've had good networking with other Muslim organisations who have partnered for various campaigns which were greatly received by the Muslim community and broader community as well", says Swart.
Meanwhile, Reverend JP Mokgethi-Heath says knowing his HIV status has changed his outlook on religion and has had a tremendous impact on his work. He says it has made him a much better priest. Mokgethi-Heath says stigma is the main cause for people dying in communities. He has emphasised the importance of faith-based communities to talk about HIV/AIDS.
"Particularly in South Africa, how can we not be involved when 20% of the country is living with HIV and 80% of the country is vulnerable to HIV? So, that is 100% of our people. How can we not be involved in HIV? Too frequently, our faith communities have become social clubs rather than coal-faces for engagement with humanity and HIV is a very uncomfortable factor that highlights many of those short-comings for us.
When the faith community engages with HIV, it is a frightening journey. It can only serve us in being more responsive to the needs of the people we are called to serve", says Mokgethi-Heath.