Religions Unite Against AIDS

Interview With Nigerian Archbishop

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By Mariaelena Finessi
DEN DOLDER, Netherlands, MARCH 31, 2010 ( Forty of the world’s religious leaders have made a commitment to a stronger and more visible fight against AIDS.

Their pact was made last week in the Netherlands where 40 high-profile Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders gathered under the sponsorship of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and Cordaid, a Dutch Catholic development organization.

Among the topics addressed were prevention measures and the fight against the pandemic, strategies directed to put an end to the stigma and discrimination and, above all, the best ways to express this sickness openly and the social problems connected with it.

The commitment of the religious leaders is to «work together to put an end to the silence.»
The Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry, UNAIDS and the Ecumenical Council of Churches have supported the initiative.
Representing Catholics at the meeting was Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria.
ZENIT: Archbishop Onaiyekan, what did you debate during these two days?
Archbishop Onaiyekan: We were invited to exchange experiences in the hope of finding common values on which to program concerted actions.
Above all, we have recognized that religion must be seen as an instrument of compassion and care for those suffering, without being concerned about the cause of the suffering.
Our task is to help these persons, especially to surmount the stigma and discrimination.
This task is possible today, given that the greater part of religions no longer speaks of AIDS as a punishment from God, but above all as a tragedy — or as a sickness that afflicts especially the poor and the innocent, in the case of children who are born with AIDS, of spouses who haven’t done anything outside marital relations; and finally of those who work in health care centers and who run great risks in the effort to help persons they don’t know.
ZENIT: What is the new strategy you see next to that of international organizations?
Archbishop Onaiyekan: These international organizations are beginning to show interest for the first time in what religious communities do.
Before this, they acted on their own, ignoring completely all our efforts, whereas today they are saying that they want to work with us.
Between both sides we will try to understand how this alliance can be brought about.
ZENIT: Are there ideas already as to how, in practice, this collaboration can be effected?
Archbishop Onaiyekan: After this summit it will be easier to exchange our experiences, to have contact between us.
In any case, it is a question of international organizations that also work in the national realm. For example — and it is the case of UNAIDS — they also have offices in Nigeria.
This means that the coordination will be more immediate and every affiliation of these organizations will be able to relate more easily to the local religious representatives, to identify a specific technical and, eventually, economic support.
In regard to formal agreements, instead, this will have to be studied more carefully because it is the responsibility of the Holy See.
What is true is that the most important work will be done by each country in the local region and in each diocese.
ZENIT: What is the Catholic Church’s commitment on the front in the fight against AIDS? Are there, for example in Africa, best practices in this regard?
Archbishop Onaiyekan: The Catholic Church finds itself in a situation of great advantage because it has specified organizations in the episcopal conferences and in the dioceses, not counting the experiences carried out in the interreligious realm between Christians and Muslims to address the topic of HIV and AIDS.
For example, in Nigeria we have an ecclesiastical office that coordinates prevention and care of the illness and that is in constant contact with the national government to debate on how they can work together.
In particular, in our diocese in Abuja, we have created programs to help persons in the area of health and all, religious and civil communities are involved in the HIV services of counseling and testing, to know if those who come to the different out-patients departments are positive or negative.
In this way, we are able to carry out a better distribution of medicines and offer information services on how to prevent the transmission of the virus from mother to child at the moment of birth.
Obviously, everything depends on economic availability.
ZENIT: Very often debated in regard to prevention is the use of condoms. What is your opinion?
Archbishop Onaiyekan: Personally I am in agreement with the Holy See that the effective answer to the challenge we face and that especially involves young people is not the condom, but a change in the style of life, better health organization, and the solution of the problem of poverty.
Moreover, let us not forget that there are millions of people who are already sick: to distribute condoms does not help them.
 [Translation by ZENIT]

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