Searching for hope and acceptance
Religious response to AIDS

When she realised she was HIV positive, Faghmeda Miller’€™s first thoughts were: “I have shamed my family, they are going to shun me”.

Almost 18 months passed before Miller built up the courage to tell her family. She says that during that time she searched for other Muslims who might be HIV positive, but found none.

“I phoned some organisations, but got nowhere and eventually I gave up and joined a Christian support group. They gave me the courage to speak up and to accept the disease as my disease.”

While her immediate family was “very supportive and caring”, says Miller, some of her extended family have shunned her.

“What hurts is I was close to some of them before and now suddenly they think badly of me. That hurts, but I just ignore it.”

In the four years since she told her family, Miller has begun to speak out more and more about being a Muslim living with HIV.

“There are no support groups in any of the mosques, but various mulanas and imams do call me for advice and support,” she says.
When she’€™s invited, she speaks in mosques where, generally, she’€™s been well received.

“Some men objected, but most were very supportive. I think those who object do so because they’€™re still ignorant. To them the disease is still ‘€˜out there’€™. I also used to think like that.”

AIDS researchers tell us that two factors can limit the impact of HIV/AIDS — income and social cohesion. Wealthy nations with a strong civil society stand a better chance of coping with HIV/AIDS than poorer countries, especially those with low levels of social coherence.

South Africa’€™s economic constraints are well known. Apartheid destroyed the family cohesion of millions of people. However, religious institutions that have millions of members could do a lot to help establish a supportive environment within which to confront the epidemic.

Unfortunately, many religious institutions have shied away from involvement in HIV/AIDS campaigns because the disease is largely sexually transmitted.

But Bart Cox, who co-ordinates the AIDS programme of the Anglican church in Johannesburg, says that while the church may not be publicly at the forefront of the HIV/AIDS campaign, a lot is happening at the individual parish level.

“There are lots of homes [for AIDS orphans], lots of care initiated by different churches. The Catholics were the first, I think, to set up homes. But others are doing excellent work now too, such as the Salvation Army.

“Then there are the youth organisations, such as Scripture Union and Youth for Christ, who are taking messages out to young people about prevention and healthy lifestyles.”

Within Muslim structures, there is little acknowledgement that the disease will impact on their communities.

The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) says that the rapid spread of AIDS is an endorsement of the Prophet Muhammad’€™s condemnation of homosexuality and “open fornication”.

“Since the means by which AIDS is transmitted are forbidden in Islam, it could be assumed that all Muslims are free from AIDS,” adds the MJC.

However, those Muslims who have contracted AIDS “for the wrong reasons” will be “encouraged to reform their lives and turn in repentance to Allah”.

MJC secretary general Sheik Achmat Sedick says rather than create separate support groups for HIV-positive Muslims, the council prefers to co-operate with organisations such as hospices.

“There is a lot of stigma attached to this disease. We are trying to unravel it, but at the same time we are non-compromising in terms of our belief in a moral lifestyle,” says Sedick. “We are non-compromising with regard to how people may contract the virus.”

Cox says that the sexual nature of the transmission of HIV/AIDS meant that the church had not always created an atmosphere in which HIV-positive people can feel free to ask for prayers or care.

However, he says, this is changing. There are much greater levels of awareness within the Anglican Church and this will begin to translate into action.

“We must deal with AIDS with compassion. People may have contracted the virus through irresponsible behaviour, which we can’€™t condone, but we certainly shouldn’€™t judge them,” says Cox.

“The church also needs to ask itself how judgmental it has been in addressing the needs and wants of people who are not married, or who are divorced or widowed. How should the church be meeting their sexual needs?”

In the past two years, more than half the people who have attended a clinic set up by the Catholic Church in Rustenburg’€™s Freedom Park informal settlement, have been HIV positive.

The Bishop of Rustenburg, Kevin Dowling, says there are regular funerals in the area of people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. But in most cases, the real cause of death is not acknowledged.

“For the most part, there is still a culture of silence,” says Dowling. “There is not yet an environment in which people feel free to talk openly. AIDS still carries great stigma, fear and denial.”

Dowling says the biggest thing to counteract is desperation. “The problem is so big, but there is an awful lot we can do. We need to counteract fatalism and helplessness.”

The Dean of St George’€™s Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town, Rowan Smith says the church needs to be able to offer hope and acceptance to people living with AIDS. “We should offer positive messages and concrete ways for people to live with dignity, to get help when they need it and to know that people are caring for them.” ‘€“ Health-e news service.


  • Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

    Bibi-Aisha is an award-winning journalist whose career spans working in radio, television, and development. Previously, she worked for eNCA as a specialist science reporter, and the SABC as the Middle East foreign correspondent, and SAfm current affairs anchor. Her work has appeared on Al-Jazeera, The British Medical Journal, The Guardian, IPS, Nature, and Daily News Egypt. She’s been awarded reporting fellowships from the Africa-China Reporting Project, Reuters Foundation, National Press Foundation, International Women’s Media Foundation. Pfizer/SADAG, and the World Federation of Science Journalists. She’s currently an Atlantic Tekano Fellow For Health Equity 2021.

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