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Religious leaders join hands to act on HIV/AIDS

Posted on: August 28, 2002 2:06 PM
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Prominent religious leaders from all over Africa gathered in Nairobi in June under the auspices of the World Conference on Religion, and Peace and Hope for African Children Initiative to reflect on their role in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Joyce Mulama joined them and in her report, projects their concern and their bold interfaith declaration.

The silence in the room was chilling and tension filled the air as they all listened keenly to Salim Yasin's story of how he was orphaned at a tender age by AIDS. It was such a heart rending tale that it moved some of the participants of the inter-religious meeting to tears.

Yasin, a seven year old orphan from Isiolo, north Kenya, narrated how he lost both his parents to AIDS and how he was coping with the sense of loss and grief whilst facing a very uncertain future. He went on to describe how he had been shunned by members of his community and had been left to fend for himself.

Salim is now in the hands of 'Pepe la Tumaini Jangwani', a project for people living with AIDS in Isiolo. But he is determined to live and educate society on HIV/AIDS. "I have a vision and will go miles to achieve it. A dream to fight this disease in every way and if possible wipe it from the face of this earth," he affirmed in a shrill voice.

Salim is part of the estimated 14 million children in Africa orphaned by AIDS, and for this reason, more than 120 senior African religious leaders convened in Nairobi, Kenya for a three day assembly focusing on the role of religious communities in addressing the impact of AIDS on children.

The meeting was attended by the General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) the Revd Dr Setri Nyomi. Also present was the President of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) Revd Prof Kwesi Dickson; AACC Secretary General, Revd Canon Nlement Janda; and Executive Secretary in charge of Christian Family Life (AACC), Revd Dr Kasonga wa Kasonga.

Presenting a theological reflection on children and HIV/AIDS in Africa, Revd Kasonga wa Kasonga said there was need to set up inter-religious study groups to tackle the pandemic and to combat poverty. The study groups would also teach the children the value of work. He describes AIDS as an 'equaliser' saying, "AIDS does not choose religion, race, age and profession."

He further said it was a shame in Africa today to have a 'parent-less' child who is not cared for, adding that this was not the case in the African traditional societies where an orphan enjoyed the care of other members of the community who played the role of parents to the point that the child would forget he was an orphan.

The issue of stigmatisation came out so clearly with the religious leaders admitting that through their silence and denial, they had contributed to the consolidation of stigma and exclusion of people living with HIV/AIDS and their families.

Speaking on addressing the plights of orphans, Revd Janda said, "You cannot help orphans without helping the larger community. Orphans are part of this community. If we improve the standards of the larger group then obviously orphans' status shall improve."

Acknowledging past shortcomings with regard to stigma, ignorance and denial, the senior spiritual leaders from across Africa adopted a progressive declaration, which called for concerted efforts to end stigma and expand programmes to protect children affected by AIDS.

"We must lead efforts to change attitudes, adopt policies and devote resources to protect our children, in particular girls," proclaimed Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala, Archbishop of Kampala, Uganda.

Pat Youri, Executive Director of Hope for African Children Initiative (HACI) said religious leaders had tremendous influence particularly at the community level where they have the moral authority to advocate for compassionate care and offer support for those who are HIV positive and for all vulnerable children. "They have the moral leadership to reverse negative attitudes towards AIDS and promote an enabling and caring environment especially for orphaned children," he added.

Article from: All Africa News Agency