Religious Leaders Seek to Cope with AIDS

For believers, religious faith has a paramount influence on their lives. At the 20th International AIDS Conference, during the inter-faith session the message from different religious leaders was that homophobia is a choice, and that homosexuality is not; and that religious scriptures should teach compassion and acceptance.

Phumzile Mabizela, an African religious leader openly living with HIV, founded INERELA+ with seven other religious leaders living with HIV years ago. INERELA+ is a global network of religious leaders – lay and ordained, women and men – living with or personally affected by HIV.

“We speak about life, not judgment. We speak about prevention, not condemnation. We speak about truth” she said. “There is a link between HIV stigma and the issue of sexuality. In our training we try to help religious leaders understand that sexual orientation does not mean that it is against the will of God. Sexuality is to our bodies what spirituality is to our souls.

“INERLA is inter-faith: we also work with other African traditional religions. In Africa we have so many countries that have criminalized homosexuality. The message within religious books is that we all have been created in the image of God and nobody has the right to judge or discriminate against any other person” Mabizela said.

Despite intensive efforts to combat HIV-related stigma and discrimination, it continues to not only block access to HIV-related prevention, treatment, care and support services, but also fuels shame which impacts quality of life and survival. When it comes to key populations such as men who have sex with men, transgenders, people who use drugs, sex workers, HIV-related stigma grows exponentially.

“Stigma leads to self-hatred and self-denial,: said Eliot Albers, Executive Director of the International Network of People Who use Drugs. “Stigma kills. The flipside of stigma is that you have to look to your own community for comfort, solidarity and kindness.”

Mabizela added: “Within our religions we have promoted hetero-normativity over centuries. Homophobia is driven by ignorance and prejudice. In Africa, the more we criminalize same-sex behavior, more the problem intensifies because such punitive laws make people even more vulnerable to HIV as they are afraid to seek help, care and support. INERELA+ asks you to live your own life in fullness without the fear of being discriminated. We equip you with skills to reply to those who stigmatize and discriminate against us using religious scriptures such as the Bible. Let us use the Bible to respond back as the Bible teaches us compassion, non-judgment and accepting people in totality.”

“It is really a critical time in fight against homophobia,” said Roy Wadia, Vice-Chair of the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health. “That is why APCOM thought that we should partner with other entities such as faith-based organizations and other faith-practitioners around the world to sensitize other faith-leaders about HIV.” A 2013 discussion paper on Islam, sexual diversity and access to health services was also disseminated by APCOM at AIDS 2014.

“No sacred text can justify persecution and violence against anyone,” said JP Mokgethi-Health, a minister from Sweden. He added that in many ways transsexual and transgender people are better reflections of the image of God. He questioned “why do we use sacred text to say negative things about sexuality? Sexuality is not something to be feared but celebrated and enjoyed to the glory of God.”

Dede Oetomo, Chair of APCOM, said: “Like anything in the universe, Islam is also diverse. There are orthodox (absolutist, remedialist), progressive (passivist, reformist) and alternate (humanist, radicalist, arbitrator) people. Work around sexual and reproductive health and rights is possible within Islam by progressive and humanist people because the basic principle is that Islam is a blessing to all in the universe.”

Oetomo argued that interpretation of religious texts creates differences in opinion, saying most traditional interpreters were perhaps men and proponents of heterosexuality. That is why when feminist women interpret Islam, interpretation often comes out different.

Shale Ahmed, Executive Director, Bandhu Social Welfare Society, Bangladesh, said “forced, compulsory marriages are affecting the lives of MSM and transgender persons as it perpetuates not only unfaithfulness in relationships but also increases the burden of sexually transmitted infections and HIV. There exists a huge amount of misconceptions around gender and sexual diversity among religious people. Interpretation of religious scriptures on sexuality related issues is often different among religious scholars.” Ahmed said Muslim scholars seem to be more accepting and less judgmental of transgender people than the MSM. Also some Muslim leaders are often willing to speak about HIV but less willing to speak about homosexuality.

Some very significant trends come up in a study done by the Positive Rainbow group in Indonesia. Erman Varella of Positive Rainbow said the study found out that: “Muslim MSM felt sinful and dirty after sex even before they knew their HIV status. Almost all Muslim MSM did not have sex in the first six months after getting diagnosed with HIV due to fear of God, lack of self-confidence and other reasons. Only a few MSM ever approach religious leaders when they are diagnosed positive with HIV. MSM respondents felt that religious leaders view HIV differently from other disease: HIV is viewed as a disease of 'sinners'.”

It is important to note, many MSM respondents said in this survey, that “Even before they got diagnosed positive with HIV, they had felt as if they were committing a sin during sex. So they were bathing many times after sex. Many HIV positive MSM felt that their infection is a “curse” which makes many of them feel sinful and worthless.” Alarmingly high degrees of deep-seated shame is evident which if left unaddressed end up with serious manifestations such as depression, aggression, self-harm or suicide.

Bobby Ramakant is editor of Citizen News Service