'Interfaith-Based Approach Effective in Fight Against Aids'

Religious organisations in Zimbabwe have joined the Government, non-governmental organisations in fighting the Aids scourge, which is decimating large sections of society.

Despite the high level of Aids awareness among Zimbabweans, the pandemic continues to be the greatest threat to the country's development.

Aids is killing more than 3 000 people every week and this calls for more concerted efforts by stakeholders to fight the disease.

This explains the reasons why the Government set up the National Aids Trust Fund to deal with the problem nationally and not rely on external donations.

A spokesperson for the Union for Development Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe Africa (Udaciza), Mr Benjamin Purazi, expressed the need to establish an interfaith network to contain the spread of the deadly pandemic.

He described Aids as a monster, which had become the greatest threat to humankind.

"For a long time the church has not been engaged in any way that could imply dilution of moral standards. But we are only realising that the Aids pandemic is a national disaster and we feel obliged to play our part," he said.

The apostolic sect has joined the rest of the nation in the fight against HIV/Aids by implementing various awareness programmes for their followers.

Top of the agenda is discouragement from having too many sexual partners as is the case with some sects that encourage polygamy.

For youths, the message is that they should abstain until they marry.

"We encourage the use of condoms to infected partners to avoid the spread of the HIV virus but more importantly we urge the youths to abstain from sex before marriage," Mr Purazi said.

Elder David Mpunwa of the Upper Room Ministries in Harare's city centre said messages to create awareness in their congregation were a regular item during their sermons.

He advised all religious groups regardless of colour, race, creed or belief to accept the reality of Aids.

"Whatever laws and regulations adopted, the most powerful weapon against Aids is acceptance and the ability to speak with one voice," said Elder Mpunwa.

The Central Baptist Church in Hatfield, Harare, said it was involved in fundraising to help people living with the condition, including children orphaned by the illness. There is a group of peers that visit the sick under the home-based care programme.

As a preventive measure, the church invites nurses to address about the suffering brought by the disease and stigmatisation that is keeping people living with HIV/Aids to themselves.

"Stigma results in silence, and when it comes to fighting Aids, silence is death. It suppresses public discussion and deters people from finding out the truth," said a Central Baptist Church spokesperson.

Over three million out of a total 12 million population are believed to be living with Aids while about 800 000 children have been orphaned.

Leaders from the Apostolic Faith sect drawn from the country's 10 provinces recently gathered in Harare under the auspices of the interfaith networking against HIV/Aids initiative to reflect on their role in the fight against the disease.

The religious leaders noted that the lack of such a network continued to pose a challenge in the fight against Aids.

They called for concerted action by followers who constituted about 75 percent of the total population.

"We must lead efforts to change attitudes among our members, adopt policies and devote resources to fight against Aids," said Bishop Rex Chitanda.

The interfaith-based approach has been successfully implemented in other African countries and that has worked exceptionally well especially in Uganda.

Uganda had once the highest HIV/Aids infection rates but this interfaith network drastically reduced Aids cases to less than 1 percent, down from the record 30 percent.

Local church organisations are working in conjunction with the Zimbabwe Aids Policy and Advocacy Project (ZAPAP), an affiliate of The Futures Group International.

The ultimate goal of the project is to mitigate the impact of the HIV/Aids crisis in Zimbabwe as well as help remove policy and social barriers that obstruct efforts to effectively deal with the disease.

A cure is not near in sight, the only option left is strengthening of mechanisms to prevent, reduce the spread and minimise the impact of HIV/Aids.

According to the 1998 state of the world population report, better communication about sexuality, gender relations and the avoidance of unwanted pregnancies and STDS are essential in improving young people's lives.

Educating young people in factual terms about the effects of their behavioural choices enabled them to make responsible decisions and this could be achieved only if there was a body like an interfaith network, which would not discriminate along religious belief systems.

Churches have the strongest influence on people's behaviour, as they constitute a greater part of the religious system in Zimbabwe and many other African countries.

The church leaders noted that information played a vital role in curbing the spread of Aids.

It is a fact that the church pulpit is where the most terrible things about HIV/Aids are said and establishment of the interfaith network should assist in demystifying the illness so that many followers can openly discuss the pandemic.

Stigmatisation is hampering efforts to effectively deal with the spread of this incurable disease.