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Why Churches Could Be Crucial in the Fight Against HIV in Africa

A child prays in a Jericho church in the north of Swaziland. Photos by Alex Gallafent/The World.

In the history of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, there has long been a divide between public health advocates and churches.

Religious leaders often promote ideas about HIV and the use of condoms that run counter to public health campaigns. But that’s starting to change in at least one country in southern Africa.

Swaziland is an overwhelmingly Christian nation. There are churches everywhere you look, from warehouses in the city to concrete huts in the countryside. It’s not unusual to hear praise choirs singing in markets or at bus stations.

Swaziland is also one of the hardest hit countries in the world when it comes to AIDS. It’s estimated that as many as a quarter of all Swazi adults are HIV-positive.

Churches have long played an important role in caring for the sick, but in terms of HIV prevention they’ve been at odds with the public health community. It has often come down to one issue: Until recently, Swazi church leaders publicly rejected the use of condoms by their congregants. But now you hear many comments that suggest a change in thinking.

“We follow the scientific revelation that they need to make sure they use condoms, so [that] they don’t continue infecting, or [being] infected,” said pastor Johannes Masibuku of the Alliance Church in the Swazi capital, Mbabane.

Masibuku (photo at right) is an independent church leader, which means that unlike, say, a Catholic priest, he’s free to adjust his teachings, including on the use of condoms.

Along with other local pastors, Masibuku preaches that people should not have sex outside of marriage. But he knows that some do, and he’s changed his mind on how to protect them.

That kind of shift in attitude might provide an opening, according to Tessa Dooms, a sociologist at Wits University in neighboring South Africa. “The bridge between religious and non-religious sectors of society is the biggest gulf in dealing with HIV/AIDS,” she said.

Churches that are willing to partner with the public health sector could bridge that gulf, and that could be important in Swaziland’s fight against HIV.

Swaziland is not short on anti-HIV campaigns. You can’t move without encountering billboards advocating single-partner relationships or leaflets promoting male circumcision. But virtually all of the young Swazis I met said they don’t really pay attention.

“When you come to me and say, ‘Zama, we have to talk about HIV/AIDS,’ I don’t need this,” said 21-year-old Zama Simelane. “It’s boring. [I] just say, ‘Ah, they’ve started with their AIDS thing.'”

Zama Simelane on her homestead in Swaziland.

But every week Simelane goes to church. Public health advocates argue that young people like her may be more likely to listen to HIV prevention messages if they hear them coming from a pulpit. Churches provide context for HIV messages — the way you behave has an effect on your community, and being part of a church in Swaziland means being with people you know and trust.

At Alliance Church in Mbabane, pastor Johannes Masibuko has instituted a formal HIV program. He makes himself available to talk with churchgoers about their concerns. And the Alliance program goes beyond that.

“If [congregants] want to see a medical doctor, they come on a certain day to see the doctor,” said Masibuku. “If they want to see a nurse, likewise. Or [if they] just [want] to get some information on what to do, the people who are trained are available.”

At the the New Light Zion Church, in the city of Manzini, HIV testing sessions are held in the church hall. Church president Stephen Mhlanga sets the example for his congregation by displaying a card that shows he’s been tested.

Public health advocates in Swaziland are pleased to see churches promoting medical education like this, but they also see downsides. Some of the beliefs expressed in Swazi churches run counter to the science of HIV.

Laying on of hands at the New Light Zion Church in Manzini, Swaziland.

On a Sunday morning at New Light Zion Church, a visibly sick woman sits in a chair. Members of the congregation dressed in white robes walk around her in a circle. They pray and touch her as they pass.

“We can lay hands to an HIV-positive person, and that positive person can be negative, if really he believes in that,” explained the priest, Stephen Mhlanga.

But for a medical charity like Doctors Without Borders, “it’s obviously difficult for us… to listen to messages such as, ‘Let’s pray HIV away,'” said Aymeric Peguillan, who works for the organization in Swaziland. “Clearly there is a need to have a coherent message and not to raise doubt.”

There is one more point on which the public health community remains sharply divided from churches in Swaziland: their unwillingness to reach out to men who have sex with men.

“There are what we call essentials when it comes to Christian values,” said Johannes Masibuku of Alliance Church. “There it’s not easy for us to compromise, because we have a mandate from the word of God.”

A church billboard near Manzini, Swaziland - Alex Gallafent

While there is a surge in interest in partnerships between churches and the public health community, there is also a tension. Neither side expects to see eye-to-eye on everything. On this, however, they do agree: The scale of the HIV crisis demands the effort.

View a slideshow from Swaziland on PRI’s “The World” website

This report was produced by PRI’s “The World” with support from the International Reporting Project.

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