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Religious Leaders to Fight HIV Stigma

Spiritual leaders from around the world are meeting in The Netherlands to discuss their response to HIV/AIDS. Selah Hennessy spoke to African church leaders for VOA about how they can use their influence to fight the stigma surrounding the disease.

Reverend Patricia Sawo is a pastor at the Calvary Celebration Church in Kenya and the mother of 10 children.

Sawo found out she was HIV positive more than a decade ago. She says before then she had been misinformed about the disease.

"Before I was confronted with my own HIV status, I knew that HIV was a disease for the sinners, and that is how it was presented," she said.

When she learned she was HIV-positive she lost her position in the church. But she learned more about HIV/AIDS and has retaken charge of her church and says she aims to teach her congregation the facts.

"There were people already in the church who were actually having HIV and who were hopeless and did not have anywhere to turn to," she said. "So my coming back into the church with the good news in itself started an automatic support group within the church. That Sunday that I spoke in the Sunday service, in the evening there were eight people who came to confide in me and just to tell me that they were there and they were living with HIV and we needed to find more information," she explained.

Sawo is one of more than 40 religious leaders meeting this week in The Netherlands to discuss how faith groups can respond to the HIV pandemic. She says faith leaders must speak out and take action in order to wipe out the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

She says religious leaders must lead the way.

"The religious leader is the person that you will find in the most remote village. Where there is no doctor, you will find a religious leader. Where there is no police post, you will find a religious leader and you will find at least a church or a mosque," said Sawo.

Cape Town Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, Reverend Thabo Makgoba, says faith groups have shown compassion for the sick and taken care of people living with HIV/AIDS.

"But there are others that in messaging have not been that positive and constructive, and we in some instances perpetuated stigma. But the good thing about now is that we are aware that stigma kills and we want to commit to really caring and working with those that are HIV positive," he said.

The religious response to HIV/AIDS has sometimes been hindered by issues such as HIV prevention methods, including the use of condoms, and attitudes towards people at increased risk of HIV infection, such as men who have sex with men.

Makgoba says the meeting in The Netherlands is about opening dialogue about HIV/AIDS and getting religious leaders to talk openly about the disease.

"We said we have a catastrophe in front of us that is ravaging our people. How do we collectively and as church leaders give leadership?" He asked.

The United Nations says 70 percent of the world's people identify themselves as a member of a faith community.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 40 percent of HIV related care in Lesotho and Zambia are provided by faith-based groups.