TOPICS > Health

In Morocco, 20,000 Imams Trained to Teach HIV/AIDS Awareness, Compassion

December 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The taboo topic of HIV, particularly how to prevent it and treat it, rarely surfaces in public ways in Muslim societies, but religious leaders across Morocco are trying to change that. Ray Suarez reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a conservative Muslim nation in North Africa confronts the issue of HIV/AIDS.

Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: Friday prayer in Morocco on Africa’s northwest corner. Thousands of worshipers gather in a large mosque in the city of Bouskoura to pray and hear prayers and preaching from the local imam. With few variations, this is a familiar scene, repeated weekly across the Muslim world.

On this December day, the weekly message from Imam Mohamed Ziani isn’t what you expect to hear at Friday prayers.

IMAM MOHAMED ZIANI, Morocco (through translator): Dear brothers, AIDS, or the HIV virus, is one of the most fatal plights our generation is facing, because we do not talk about it. Slaves to God, everyone here must take responsibility to prevent this disease from spreading in our society.

RAY SUAREZ: The taboo topic of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, particularly how to prevent it and treat it, rarely surfaces in such a public way in Muslim societies, let alone at the mosque.

Imam Ziani and religious leaders across Morocco are trying to change that.

IMAM MOHAMED ZIANI (through translator): It is the duty of any imam or preacher to teach. God said this in the Koran. We have a sworn oath to Allah to clarify and teach, so this is my mission. It would be a sin for me to neglect that responsibility.

RAY SUAREZ: In Morocco, 20,000 imams, like Ziani, have been trained to promote better understanding of AIDS by teaching congregations to treat HIV-positive people with compassion and mercy, instead of fear and isolation.

Imams are taught basic science about the HIV virus, prevention and the fight against AIDS in Morocco and throughout Africa. The program aims to reach 45,000 imams.

Ziani says the response to his messages of HIV awareness and prevention has been surprisingly positive. Worshipers routinely thank him and call him courageous.

IMAM MOHAMED ZIANI (through translator): My objective in preaching today was to raise people’s awareness about the dangers and about how to stop the spread of HIV by taking precautions.

RAY SUAREZ: HIV infection in Morocco in general is low. In a population of 32 million, just one-tenth of 1 percent are HIV-infected.

But health officials here quickly figured out that not talking about HIV/AIDS would likely spread the disease faster. But they had a tricky task: how to get the prevention message across without offending deeply conservative Moroccans.

Here, women wear head scarves and long tunics to hide physical features like hair and the shape of a woman’s body. They believe showing such features could provoke sexual attraction. Teaching people to practice safe sex outside of marriage here is daunting.

It makes sense that the mosques got the assignment, trusted institution in a conservative religious society. It wouldn’t have been a good fit for Morocco to go big with public education, the way some other African countries have done, billboards around the major cities, TV ads urging people to use condoms.

DR. HAKIMA HIMMICH, Association for the Struggle Against AIDS: We don’t speak on TV, we don’t speak in newspaper about what we are doing. We don’t want to provoke the population who are not — who don’t agree with what we are doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Hakima Himmich helped found the first anti-AIDS group in North Africa, the Association of the Struggle Against AIDS, ALCS in French.

Though ALCS has the support of government, it must operate in a kind of secrecy, conducting HIV education workshops, like this one for sex workers, without using public airwaves or outlets to promote them. Even with low rates of infection, 3,000 new HIV cases are reported every year. Programs are aimed at the groups at highest risk, sex workers, I.V. drug users and truckers. Targeting homosexual sex is even tougher.

DR. HAKIMA HIMMICH: Absolutely not accepted. Sex relation between men are criminalized in Morocco. There is no public gay culture. We have gay men, but they don’t say — no people can say, “I am a gay man.”

RAY SUAREZ: This woman has covered up to protect her identity. She contracted HIV from her husband, the only sex partner she has ever had. It wasn’t until he and the couple’s young baby both became ill and died that she discovered she had HIV.

Since that time, she has kept her HIV-positive status a secret, fearing even her parents would be ostracized if anyone knew.

WOMAN (through translator): If I show my face, admit to having this disease, relatives may stop coming to visit my family. The neighbors will reject them.

RAY SUAREZ: Knowing imams are at the heart of family and community acceptance of AIDS, the government association of religious leaders conducts 12 to 15 imam HIV-sensitivity training sessions every year. The sessions have received a $9 million grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, a public-private partnership that finances public health programs.

Imams responsible for delivering Friday prayer across the country are invited and coached on how to work HIV into sermons.

Dr. Ahmed Abbadi is the president of an Islamic think tank, the Mohammedia League of Moroccan Ulama, and a professor of Islamic thought.

DR. AHMED ABBADI, Mohammedia League of Moroccan Ulama: We have some rules in our religion, Islam, that do say, please be always keen to push the greater damage even by a smaller damage.

If you do insist to have some dangerous sexual intercourses, at least use condom, because this would mean that you will be protecting yourself and your partners.

RAY SUAREZ: Prostitutes have been invited to workshops to talk, and imams and theologians like Farida Zummorrod asked to listen.

FARIDA ZUMMORROD, theologian (through translator): I met some of the female sex workers at the workshop here. At first, they were frightened of us religious leaders, thinking we would attack them and call them whores. Instead, we learned how poverty pushed them into prostitution.

DR. AHMED ABBADI: We succeeded in having those who do suffer from the disease working with us to spread the message, to make their society aware of the dangers. They were sort of saying openly — and I think that this is one of the most beautiful forms of patriotism — look where we are. We don’t want you here. Take care.

RAY SUAREZ: Abbadi says the imam training program has already led to successes, one example, a sizable increase in HIV testing in high-risk groups.

This mobile clinic headed out to a Casablanca truck stop to offer free HIV screenings to trucks drivers who travel the length of this country, the crossroads between Europe and Africa.

MAN (through translator): We target the sex workers in the streets who serve the drivers who use the road every day, even mechanic and street merchants in the streets. It’s the users of the roads that we try and reach.

RAY SUAREZ: Morocco’s unique combination of public health and religion is now being looked at as a model for HIV prevention in Muslim countries across the region.

GWEN IFILL: Ray’s next story looks at Morocco after the Arab spring, with a new constitution and hopes for greater democracy.