Kenya Clergy Urged to Ditch Sanctimony in HIV Fight

Posted on 1 May 2008. Filed under: Governance, MDGs, Public Health |

Photo: Ann Weru/IRIN
Canon Gideon Byamugisha, who facilitated the meeting, was the first member of the African clergy to disclose his HIV status

NAIROBI, 30 April 2008 (PlusNews) – When Bishop James Otieno Okombo revealed he was HIV-positive in 1996, his archbishop summarily dismissed him, calling him a sinner and a disgrace to his church.

“He [the archbishop] called me before a church leaders’ conference and told me to repent; to denounce the sins that led to me getting infected,” Okombo told a meeting of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) last week. “They took off my ceremonial attire – the collar, shirt and gown, and the cross – and sent me home.”

Okombo started his own church, the School of Ministry, in the capital, Nairobi. Two and a half years later, after the intervention of a friend, his former church, which he preferred not to name, reinstated him as a bishop.

His case is not unusual or even uncommon. According to NCCK officials, the “sin” tag that members of Kenya’s churches still attach to HIV is hampering the fight against the pandemic.

Rev Canon Gideon Byamugisha, of the Anglican Church’s Namirembe Diocese in Uganda, who was facilitating the meeting, said the clergy and their congregants were very often ignorant of the harm they caused by stigmatising and discriminating against HIV-positive people.

“Different church members and leaders are at different stages of understanding HIV,” Byamugisha told IRIN/PlusNews. “Most do it [reinforce stigma and discrimination] without knowing it.”

The aim of the week-long meeting in Nairobi was to empower participants to change their own and their congregants’ attitudes to HIV.

“Our brothers and sisters who have confessed to being HIV-positive have lost jobs, spouses, fiancées and friends,” Oliver Kisaka, NCCK’s deputy general secretary, told the meeting. “They are denied educational and employment opportunities and, until recently, medical insurance cover.”

“The church has enormous potential to preserve life and dignity through the influence it brings to bear on its membership,” he added. “The emphasis for this, however, must be on inclusion, care, and support to the infected and the affected, instead of stigma and discrimination.”

Passing judgement

Jedidah Namunyo, secretary for women at the African Church of the Holy Spirit in Shinyalu, western Kenya, was candid about her past treatment of people living with HIV.

''In my church we have long held the notion that a good Christian should not get the virus. We have looked at the infected as sinners who should repent''

“In my church we have long held the notion that a good Christian should not get the virus. We have looked at the infected as sinners who should repent,” she told IRIN/PlusNews. “Now I have learnt there are many ways of contracting it, not necessarily through illicit sex.”

She had labelled HIV-positive people as ‘sinners’ and ‘people who misbehave’, and had even borrowed the Biblical phrase “the wages of sin is death” to describe HIV as a divine punishment.

“I have discriminated against those with HIV many times, refusing to shake their hands, sit next to or eat with them, or even to allow my children to play with theirs,” she said. “I remember when we attended the funeral of my cousin who died of an AIDS-related illness no one wanted to touch her body, her blankets or clothes.”

Rev Ralph Chege, of the Redemption World Crusaders Ministries, used to preach without considering whether anyone in the congregation was living with HIV. “To me HIV was outside the door,” he said.

“In marriage, we demanded health certificates and if one turned out positive we would tell them it was pointless to bless their union. ‘After all, you are going to die soon’, we would say.” Eventually, couples began producing fake health certificates or simply stopped coming to his church, he said.

Read more:
ZIMBABWE: HIV-positive pastor shouts from the pulpit
UGANDA: HIV-positive religious leaders break silence
Pastor Gilbert Momola: “We must stop looking at people living with HIV/AIDS as sinners”

Church leaders at the meeting committed themselves to training peers and congregants so as to change their attitudes to HIV/AIDS, promote responsible practices to help prevent transmission of the virus, encourage voluntary counselling and HIV testing, and educate children about HIV and AIDS.

“Church leaders should know they are fighting a battle that can be won; they need to know that AIDS is preventable, manageable and defeatable,” said Uganda’s Byamugisha. “This is because we in the church have the means, the audience and the mandate to tackle the AIDS problem; moreover, we have God on our side.

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