When I started this job, I saw religion as one of
the biggest obstacles to our work, particularly in the area of
prevention. But I have seen some great examples of treatment and care
that came from the religious community and lately in the area of
prevention." These words from Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of
UNAIDS from its creation in 1995 until the end of 2008, signal the
changing attitudes of key leaders on the world scene toward the roles
of faith communities in combating the HIV and AIDS pandemic.
In the words of another global leader, Dr. Margaret Chan of the
World Health Organization: "AIDS is the most complex, the most
challenging, and probably the most devastating infectious disease
humanity has ever had to face. It is an unforgiving epidemic that can
strike back in surprising, sometimes startling ways."
In discussing ways in which AIDS and religion are linked, we must
recall that the pandemic is first and foremost a scientific, social,
psychological, medical, economic, and political challenge; it is not
primarily about religion. Nevertheless, AIDS and religion have been a
We should accept the fact that health officials, the scientific
community, and the many organizations working for people living with
HIV have had uneasy relationships with organized religion. Religious
leaders were rarely seen as genuine coworkers in the global strategy to
halt the spread of HIV and address the plight of those living with
AIDS. A deep-seated suspicion permeated the HIV and AIDS community that
"religion is against us." From religious groups, the criticism has been
that those who advocate the case of those living with HIV and AIDS are
taking moral issues lightly in defending lifestyles that spread the
Why this gap between science and faith if religion is fundamentally
about protection of life and care for the living? If faith is about
relationships and human wholeness, should one not expect an open and
embracing attitude of religious institutions to the community of those
living with the virus and dying from its effects? If religions preach
the dignity of every human being, should one not rightly expect that
this God-given uniqueness would be affirmed and upheld? A spirituality
that is mainly inward looking, or focused on salvation of the soul,
will have little understanding of, or even interest in, the social
issues around HIV and AIDS, nor in a holistic approach to human
suffering. A theological anthropology, however, which regards a person
both as an integral identity, with body, soul, and mind, and as a
social being who exists in relationship to God, man, and nature, has a
far better potential to recognize the HIV/AIDS agenda as congenial to
the spiritual challenge.
My reflections on the relationship between faith and the pandemic
are shaped by engagement on the national and international scene and by
participation both in secular and sacred responses to this urgent human
need. In August 2008, I participated in the seventeenth International
AIDS Conference in Mexico City. This biennial conference is the world
summit for people concerned about HIV and AIDS. This was my third such
meeting (the first was in Bangkok in 2004, the second in Toronto in
2006, which I cochaired). I have advised the Norwegian government on
HIV/AIDS for several years. Through this journey, I have witnessed the
need for a theology of AIDS and a spirituality of care.
The International AIDS Conference brings together people from all
over the world; the prevalence of the pandemic differs widely from
region to region, but the human suffering creates the same urgency. All
were there in Mexico City: scientists, health workers, civil servants
and bureaucrats, pharmaceutical companies, world leaders and leaders of
faiths, Asians, Africans, Europeans, North and South Americans, people
of every color, every faith, and every culture.
And most significantly, "the community" was there--this multifaceted
group of thousands of young and old, men and women, who are infected
with and affected by HIV and AIDS. No other social issue has created a
broad popular movement like this. This galvanizing of a community of
people against this modern plague is linked to the nature of the
pandemic, so deeply related to personal identities, individual
lifestyles, and intimate relationships. The world of HIV and AIDS is a
classless society in many respects; the virus does not differentiate by
social status. It is an equalizer, on life's downside, but also a
mobilizer, joining worlds of victims.
The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance organizes preconferences linked to
the International AIDS Conference, drawing up to five hundred people
from all over the world. These leaders, health professionals, and
activists work to mobilize a genuine response from faith-based
organizations to the awesome challenges posed by the pandemic--no mean
The 2008 Mexico conference marked the first time the international
AIDS summit had come to Latin America. As in Bangkok, the cultural and
religious environment and context were palpable. The prevailing Roman
Catholic tradition and the strong showing of the continent's
conservative evangelical churches colored discussion of controversial
issues such as prevention. This is, however, a continent where a
pre-Christian, indigenous spirituality permeates official religion. In
Brazil, for example, 90 percent of the people say they adhere to some
religion but they blend their practices and beliefs. This mix opens
people to a more accepting attitude about human sexuality. Basically,
the question is how established religious institutions, more than
individuals, come to terms with human realities.
Most religions have a clear humanitarian agenda. The HIV/AIDS
pandemic is one of today's leading humanitarian challenges. It wreaks
untold suffering on the 33 million people who now live with the
disease, their families, their communities, and their countries. Every
fifteen seconds, someone in the world dies of AIDS-related illnesses,
most often because they lack medicine.
The global pandemic thus has an important place in the political and
economic agenda of most nations. It affects humanitarian and
development programs. It is a central human rights issue. The United
Nations has dealt with HIV/ AIDS as a matter of national security and
survival. In many countries of Africa, large segments of the population
are infected, leading to near breakdown of public services, schools,
medical institutions, police, and army. AIDS carries the face of a
cross section of the population, including political, civil society,
and religious leaders.
Thus the pandemic has, paradoxically, become a great equalizer. It
affects people from all sectors in society. It hits men and women in
almost equal numbers. Neither young nor old go free. A huge number of
victims are infants and children. It is a family affair both when it
kills and when it heals.
At the opening ceremony in Mexico City, Ban Ki Moon,
secretary-general of the United Nations, made special reference to
people of faith: "I call on politicians around the world to speak out
against discrimination and protect the rights of people living with or
affected by HIV, for schools to teach respect, for religious leaders to
preach tolerance, and for media to condemn prejudice in all its forms."
The challenge to all religious institutions that recognize a social
agenda was also voiced by Dr. Margaret Chan in her opening speech: "In
the interest of facilitating a sustained AIDS response, we must look
for every opportunity to improve operational efficiency. One way to do
this is to make linkages between existing health care services--for
example, for youth, mothers, and children; for sexual and reproductive
health; and for reaching out to men who have sex with men, sex workers,
and injecting drug users."
Religious communities are responding in various ways with social
services, education, and prayers, according to their spiritual profile.
Every year on World AIDS day, December 1, the pain and suffering and
lost lives of beloved ones are remembered. People whose lives have been
shattered seek spiritual consolation, often outside the structures of
established religion. Churches, temples, and synagogues open their
doors for rituals and rites of remembrance and prayers.
Spirituality is about hope and persistence. The hope that we can
have medicines that can offer a nearly normal life to people living
with HIV only underscores the tragedy that so many are still dying.
That one day there will be a cure to end the virus's reign finds too
little nurture in science but is the fervent hope of millions affected.
The hope of universal access to medicines that prolong life and enhance
its quality is vibrant.
This hunger for hope beyond the human capacity of healing was
clearly witnessed at the Mexico International AIDS Conference, which
for the first time published religious events in its official program.
A prayer room and religious facilities were advertised, and regular
liturgies were celebrated according to different traditions.
In the struggles to overcome the scourge of HIV and AIDS, many have
come to see that "to go it alone" as a faith group is no longer an
option. Crosscutting human issues, such as war, hunger, poverty, and
disease, must be addressed both within every religion and by different
religions acting together. We must recognize the validity of the
spiritual tradition of "the other."
One evening in Mexico, I joined a group for interfaith worship in a
Methodist church in the city's center. Muslims, Jews, Christians,
Buddhists, and Sikhs came together with members of indigenous spiritual
movements to pray for healing and wholeness.
For several participants, even to enter the sacred space of another
religion represented a dramatic crossing of boundaries. But the
pandemic has opened hearts and doors and revealed new spiritual depths
as it touches the deepest levels of a shared humanity. Thus it has
moved people from different worlds of faith to a new understanding of
solidarity. Like the tsunami that hit the countries in Southeast Asia
some years ago, HIV has unleashed unprecedented acts of care across
religious, ethnic, and cultural faultlines. In this sense the curse has
also brought blessings.
The congregation that evening in downtown Mexico City epitomized
this reality. They were young and old; some came alone, others with
family and friends. This scene is familiar in many places of worship
around the world, where drugs, prostitution, and unsafe sexual
practices take a deadly toll, and where poverty and illiteracy multiply
the odds against survival.
The haggard face of a man sitting by himself, almost hidden behind a
pillar, reminded me of a piece I had read that day, penned by Aroosa
Masroor, a Pakistani journalist. I was deeply moved by the way he
agonized over the fate of the "unseen, unheard, unmourned, those whose
lives already have excluded them from society and whose despair leads
to death." The Edhi morgue in Karachi receives fifty nameless bodies
every day, he wrote. "When buried there is nothing inscribed on their
tombstone either. They die the most unfortunate death."
The simple liturgy, the music and songs, and the words spoken by
people from different faiths made this a deeply moving event. Prayers
were offered, greetings exchanged, candles lit, and money was collected
for local outreach to people in the neighbourhood living with HIV and
AIDS, many on the margins of society. This encounter epitomized the
vital role of spirituality and worship within the world of AIDS.
As I listened to the open and direct way the religious leaders spoke
that evening, I recalled a time when the existence of the dreaded
disease was only whispered. In Africa it was called "the slim disease,"
in the United States the "gay cancer." Indeed, religious institutions
and people of faith have come a long way since medicine first named the
disease in 1981.
Looking around at my fellow worshipers, I wondered at how they had
been changed, that their faith drew them to share an interfaith worship
service in a Christian church. And I remembered the first interfaith
conference in Africa on AIDS organized by the World Conference of
Religions for Peace in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2002. During one session, a
religious leader stood up and confessed that in his community they did
not bury a person who was suspected of having died of this "unclean
cause." "We do not want to contaminate the soil." As we reacted with
shock, he paused and added: "I have now learned differently and I am
going home to change our ways."
And indeed there is a changing of ways. Today--thirty years after
the disease got a proper scientific diagnosis and a medical name--parts
of religious establishments have followed the human path of those who
live the pandemic. The path has led from hidden corners to the open,
from stigma and shame to acceptance. Many religious leaders and
communities have moved from silence and rejection to advocacy and
No other issue has--to the same degree in a relatively short period
of time--so deeply affected the way religious people relate to the
diversity of human sexuality. Today there is growing support among
well-informed religious leaders and activists for the goal of universal
access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and education. Religious
leaders, more and more, see them all as necessary elements in an
integrated and viable strategy to respond.
To appreciate fully the significance of this change, one must be
conscious of the taboos inherent in many religious traditions.
Religious leaders have paradoxically been uncomfortable in speaking
about one of the most fundamental features of human existence, that of
sexuality. And contrary to their professed love and care, religious
institutions, teachings, and attitudes have stigmatized victims of
Put with stark simplicity, religious leaders and communities
perceive that AIDS equals sex, which equals sin, which equals death. In
the most primitive form, it comes out as a judgment: you deserve this
punishment for your wicked life. Today there is greater recognition
that HIV/AIDS is an illness, not a sin. It is a virus, not a
temptation. This understanding does not deny the fact that the virus is
frequently spread by risky and irresponsible and therefore immoral
If a spiritual message of care and hope is to be communicated,
religious leaders, pastors, bishops, and teachers must associate
actively with all vulnerable groups. One must be fully informed about
the nature of the virus. Especially, teachers of young people should be
able to discuss all issues related to the various ways the virus is
transmitted. This raises complex issues related to human sexuality,
issues like prevention, prostitution, promiscuity, gender-based
violence, rape, and incest. Homophobia, often nurtured by religious and
cultural traditions, needs to be addressed, especially in religious
teaching about the nature of man. Moral codes should not be obstacles
for communication about the realities of life.
Many outstanding and innovative initiatives to confront HIV/AIDSs
have come through people who themselves, or whose family members, have
been infected. Such individuals have often led the way and worked to
change the way religious communities react to the pandemic. They are
Buddhist monks, Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis, Hindu priests, who with
compassion and courage have followed their spiritual calling to side
with the vulnerable and the oppressed.
One such outstanding religious leader is Canon Gideon Byamugisha.
This Ugandan Anglican cleric lost his first wife to AIDS and then found
that he himself was also infected. His bishop did not reject him but
encouraged him to turn his fate into a blessing for others. He began to
speak openly about his HIV status, drawing strength from his Christian
In the process he found many religious leaders in the same
situation. He started a network for religious leaders living with or
personally affected by HIV and AIDS, called ANERELA+ (African Network
of HIV-affected Religious Leaders living with or personally Affected by
HIV and AIDS). Soon this organization counted more than three thousand
members from all faiths on the African continent. In 2008 it expanded
to become a global network, INERELA+. This truly interfaith work
empowers religious leaders to be agents of hope and change in their own
communities and beyond.
This transforming vision is reflected in the words of the Episcopal
Conference of Africa and Madagascar (December 2003), which might serve
as a clarion call to people of faith in every corner of the world:
"Facing the serious threat of AIDS, . . . we are committed to promote
changes of mentality, attitude and behaviour necessary for confronting
the challenge of the pandemic; work tirelessly to eradicate stigma and
discrimination and to challenge any social, religious, cultural and
political norm and practices which perpetuate such stigma and
discrimination; and play a major role in eradicating the damaging myths
of stigma and discrimination."