Papua New Guinean revivalist churches push dangerous campaign for 'faith-healing' of AIDS

Revivalist churches in Papua New Guinea are promoting prayer as a substitute for medication to those with HIV, according to human rights groups.

PNG is a deeply Christian society, and most mainstream churches are trying to improve attitudes to those living with HIV.

But with poor medical facilities and a widespread belief in sorcery, belief in faith healing is growing.

Ten years ago, PNG was on the brink of an AIDS explosion.

"The original thinking in PNG, given the facts and figures around sexually transmitted infections and unwanted teen pregnancies - behavioural information - certainly gave us the idea that we were heading towards a sub-Saharan African style epidemic," UNAIDS country co-ordinator Stuart Watson said.

But that generalised epidemic has not happened.

Instead, the virus has been localised to the Highlands, Morobe Province, and the National Capital District.

High-risk communities include sex workers, men who have sex with men and transgender people, as well as those who travel for their work.

Margaret Anton, president of Women Affected by HIV/AIDS, is one of an estimated 25,000 Papua New Guineans living with HIV.

And like many she has faced discrimination from family and friends.

"When people found out I was HIV positive, when I had TB, they didn't want anything to do with me," she said.

"Sometimes I would spend nights on the road, for shelter I would find a tree to sleep under."

Columnist suggests HIV prison

That sort of discrimination even finds a voice in the country's mainstream media.

Timothy Pirinduo is a columnist in PNG's only locally-owned newspaper.

He believes HIV was created in a lab by crazy scientists, and wants new laws to make HIV testing compulsory.

"Once we identify those with HIV/AIDS, then we can separate them from those who are not affected," he said.

"Separating them would be like keeping them in a confinement, kind of a prison kind of set-up."

While Mr Pirinduo's HIV prison is just an idea, deadly preaching is a reality.

Pastor Godfrey Wippon heads PNG's Revival Centres and says his is the fastest growing religious movement in the country.

"It is growing because of healings, miracles, wonders, science happening in this ministry. The Lord heals," he said.

On a beach in Port Moresby, revivalists gather to sing and watch as new recruits are baptised and speak in tongues.

Pastor Wippon believes baptism and prayer can cure AIDS and even bring the dead back to life.

Revival church responsible for death: activist

Health workers have told the ABC revivalists visit hospitals and clinics telling HIV patients to throw away their medication.

In a case that shocked many, one of PNG's first openly HIV-positive women, Helen Samilo, fell prey to the revivalist message.

Even though she was working as an advocate for anti-retroviral treatment, Ms Samilo joined a revivalist church, stopped taking medication, and died in August last year.

"It's just the revival church that told her not to take her medication. They are responsible for her death," Ms Anton, a friend of Ms Samilo, said.

Pastor Wippon sees Ms Samilo's death differently.

"She has been healed spiritually. She died physically, naturally. But spiritually she's right with the Lord," he said.

The mainstream churches in PNG are working with the United Nations and non-government organisations to help people access services.

Catholic archbishop John Ribat is a member of the Christian Leaders Alliance.

"Our concern as churches is to come together to address this HIV and AIDS and fight against the discrimination that continues to divide us," he said.

That division and discrimination has also created enclaves of hope.

Ms Anton and philanthropic businesswoman Veronica Charlie are planning to build a permanent care centre to accommodate 50 people ostracised by their communities.

These men, women and children currently sleep in tents or in the open and rely on charity to survive.

For Ms Anton, helping others with HIV is part of positive living.

"I started seeing that God did preserve me, probably for my little boy, probably because I'm going to work along with this wonderful woman who has decided to take us along and build a care centre," she said.

"Using my status I've decided to come out openly and publicly so that I want to be a voice for women out here who have been through stigma and discrimination."