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Nigeria / AIDS Prejudice - 2002-12-19

Religion is often perceived as the comforter and protector of the oppressed and the outcast, but critics say that has not been the case in Nigeria. They say some in the religious community have instead become vanguards of ostracism, which runs contrary to the teachings of the founders of the faith.

Jesus Christ, upon whom Christianity is based, emphasized love and forgiveness. Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles describes how God anointed Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit and how he went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil. In other parts of the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus asks only those who are without sin to cast stones against an adulteress. When no stone was cast, he did not condemn her but told her to go and sin no more.

It’s a similar story with the Koran. Adekunle Tijani is the chief Imam of the University of Ibadan Central Mosque. He is also a senior lecturer in Arabic studies at the university. Mr. Tijani says, "Islam teaches that not only AIDS patients, any set of people who are sick, that you should give them assistance. You should not disown them. You should not run away from them."

Attributed to the Prophet Mohammad are such sayings as “Those who visit the sick are going in the way of paradise,” And “the brotherhood in Islam is just like the whole body: when you have a headache, all your body is affected. So what affects your brother affects you, so do not abandon him.” Chapter 90, verse 17 of the Muslim holy book says Islam recommends perseverence, patience, piety and compassion toward others.

The Imam says it is African to care for the sick. But he says the negative image surrounding AIDS is scaring people away from attending to the patients. However, an Islamic cleric says showing compassion to the infected does not mean supporting sex outside of marriage. Instead, he says Islam preaches abstinence rather than the use of condoms against HIV/AIDS.

But today critics say some in the religious community are more likely to condemn those with HIV / AIDS. They are considered to have sinned – and for many, those who have caught sexually transmitted diseases, like HIV / AIDS, are sinners.

However, this is not everyone’s view. Lara Adeyemi is the program coordinator of ‘Total Youth’ empowerment initiative - Chesrad International -an NGO based in the southwestern city of Ibadan. It helps prepare youths for the challenges of life with counseling on reproductive health. Mrs. Adeyemi says up to now, religious groups have been poorly prepared to help AIDS patients. In addition she says many Christians say they are not comfortable when their preachers talk about AIDS during worship services.

Meanwhile efforts to inform the public about the pandemic are continuing. The fear that the disease is approaching epidemic proportions is not only raising serious concern locally but internationally. That is one reason why a Philadelphia based African American group - ‘The Balm in Gilead’ -- has begun an effort to tackle the disease. It is encouraging cooperation between Nigeria’s two dominant religions - Christianity and Islam - to deal with the spread of AIDS. Already they have formed a new NGO -- Inter-Faith HIV/AIDS Council of Nigeria -- that aims to help religious groups find strategies for dealing with the disease. It is also working to support those already affected and infected by the HIV virus that causes AIDS. For example, it encourages compassion for those infected.

An Ibadan-based Anglican priest, Titus Olayinka, believes it is possible for Christians and Muslims to work together to tackle AIDS. He says, " We have this pro moral thing in West Africa whereby Christians and Muslims come together on some matters that affect these two religions. It can work if we have the same objectives."

Without a cure or a vaccine available, health experts are trying to raise awareness about practicing safe sex to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS.