Saturday, 18 August 2007

HEALTH-ASIA: 'Tackling HIV/AIDS Goes Beyond Morality'

HEALTH-ASIA: 'Tackling HIV/AIDS Goes Beyond Morality'
By Lynette Corporal

COLOMBO, Aug 18 (IPS/TerraViva) - On the second day of the three-day Interfaith Community Forum ahead of the 8th International Congress for AIDS in the Asia-Pacific (ICAAP) here, different religious groups gathered together to share their experiences dealing with HIV and AIDS -- once a controversial, taboo issue for many of them.

Buddhist monks, Catholic priests and nuns, Christian pastors, Muslim imams, and Hindu religious leaders all took part in discussing ways to prevent the spread of the pandemic without resorting to judgments and stigma, and responding in a way relevant to the everyday lives of their communities.

"Before, the discussion used to centre around what AIDS is and what to do about it. But now, we are sharing experiences about how different sectors of society are providing support to people with HIV. Whereas before when it was all talk, we are seeing more action now," said Abdus Sabur, secretary-general of the Bangkok-basd Asian Muslim Action Network that helps coordinate the activities of 45 Muslim participants from 15 countries at the community forum.

This is a good sign, he added, because Muslim religious leaders or imams are now participating in the dialogue and exploring ways on how to lessen the stigma of and support the people with HIV.

But, he conceded, there are still many misconceptions. "There is still some stigma and prejudice, with some people thinking it is not a priority issue, or that HIV-positive persons are a deviation from Islam," he said a day before ICAAP went underway in the capital of this South Asian island nation.

But thanks to the actions of various groups, support for HIV-positive persons is becoming wider and bigger in the Muslim community, a far cry from the situation in previous years.

For HIV-positive Adam Yulius Sarijoan, field coordinator of the Indonesia-based non-government organisation Yakita, this says a lot about the growing maturity of the community. "Before, HIV-positive persons had a bad image in the religious community. We were ostracised and couldn't do anything about it. But now, I see the acceptance and support pouring in," said the 30-year-old field coordinator of Yakita, which provides assistance to former drug dependents.

For the Hindu community, dealing with the HIV and AIDS pandemic is best approached in an organised manner. Hindu participants agree that they need to have a good network if they want to make an impact in the prevention of the spread of the virus.

"This is why we are here, to see how we can move forward from just talking about religion to really addressing individual problems. It is important to change the attitude of religious leaders, especially those who are still in denial that the issue of the pandemic is a real and grave threat if ignored," said Padmini Perera of Sarvodaya, the oldest and biggest NGO in Sri Lanka.

Perera believes that religious leaders, being powerful opinion makers, will be very effective messengers about HIV infection and AIDS at the grassroots level. "What we really want is to find out the ways to take this forward and to really make a difference in effecting change. Both religious leaders and the faithful need to work together," said Dr Lalith Chandradasa of Sarvodaya.

Knowing the complex levels of understanding and acceptance among the faithful, Sagarika Chetty, executive secretary for justice, peace and life of the National Council of Churches in India, says it will take some more time to have a single voice about the whole issue.

Like the others, she believes that progress has been made and built on the early concerns of giving care and support to people living with HIV and AIDS. "Now, we're talking about such things as universal accessibility (to medicine) and ethical dilemmas. It's very advanced thinking," said Chetty.

For the Buddhist monks who took part in the meetings, the faithful must use the Buddhist way to solve the problem -- to first look for the cause and second, to find the solution. To do this would mean engagement in discussion with the community.

Burmese Buddhist monk U Ponnyananda said, however, that discussion should always be followed by action. The monk from Mandalay practises what he preaches in his Phaung Daw Oo Monastic Education High School, which is involved in the training of novice monks to become peer educators. These young monks, in turn, teach the youth about health matters, the perils of drug use and sex education.

In efforts to educate people about HIV and AIDS, U Ponnyananda identifies the language barrier in Burma, which is home to many ethnic groups, as a major stumbling block. "Discussing sex education with parents, children and even monks is also quite difficult," he said.

Linda Hartke of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance added: "The key is to find effective ways for both religious leaders and the community to take active part in the whole process. Yet, they need to use different strategies." But for all the participants, it all boils down to how their respective faiths will figure in HIV-positive people's quest for healing in all levels -- physical, emotional, spiritual. Often, a religious community's support and acceptance will make or break this process.

Said Sabur: "We always emphasise that religious teachings are very helpful in the way we conduct our way of life. At the same time, people have different levels of understanding, so deviation is possible. If we stick to the morality question, then people with HIV will have already been judged. But if we keep in mind the teaching that to serve a sick person is to serve God, and accept that person as part of the community, then we are on the right track."

Anthony Perera, a Catholic priest from Sri Lanka, shares Sabur's sentiments, saying that communities need to have an "education of the heart". "This is what is lacking, a spiritual formation that will give meaning and hope to a person's life," he shared.

(*Terra Viva is an IPS publication) (END/2007)

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