The global HIV/AIDS epidemic is an unprecedented crisis that requires an unprecedented response. In particular it requires solidarity -- between the healthy and the sick, between rich and poor, and above all, between richer and poorer nations. We have 30 million orphans already. How many more do we have to get, to wake up?" Kofi Annan
In many countries, faith-based organizations have been in the forefront of care and support initiatives since the onset of the impact of HIV. However, in many instances, faith-based organizations have also been a factor in the fault lines. HIV has challenged the way we think, and our traditional way of dealing with contentious or challenging issues. It has flourished in a milieu of stigma and discrimination, increasing the isolation and suffering of those living with the disease.
HIV/AIDS Epidemic has forcefully challenged us to reflect at the core of our Christian faith mandate: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ As Christians, we are called to bring more than just programmes and medicines to the HIV and AIDS infected. We are called to restore dignity and bring hope compassionately. This article aims at providing the reasons why, we, Church (although the Church, in its true meaning, is the whole people of God, what I mean here is that religious leaders) in Timor Leste, should be more involved in tackling the issue and the reasons for care and support.
The Overview of the HIV and AIDS Epidemic
The most recent data from WHO and UNAIDS released that about 34.2 million people in the world were living with AIDS in 2011. Of these numbers, adults: 30.7 million and children: 3.4 million.
Around 1.7 million people have died of AIDS at the of 2011. In total 2.5 million people newly infected with HIV in 2011. From these figures, 2.2 million are adults and 330.000 million are children. People in every region and every country are affected. Dozens of countries are already in grip of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Many more are on the brink.
By June 2012, furthermore, the cumulative number of people in Timor Leste who have been infected since the first reported case (in 2003) is 294, among whom were 131 females aged 15 and older, 135 males aged 15 and older, and 28 children aged 0-14. Out of the total number of HIV infected people, 73 have been receiving ARV (antiretroviral) treatment, while the total number of deaths has increased by 11 to 31 people since the end of 2009. ( Data released by CRS Dili, in June 2012)
Almost all those known to be living with HIV reside in urban areas, predominantly in Dili. Out of the 294 cases that have been found in Timor Leste during the period of 2003- June 2012, 242 people were in Dili. In the second quarter of 2012 (April-June), 16 out of 21 people who were identified with HIV were receiving ARV treatment, and the majority of them were aged 25-44 years old.
Although HIV prevalence in Timor-Leste is very low, estimated to be less than 0.1% among adults aged 15-49 in 2008, inadequate testing and insufficient research would likely mean that more people are infected than what is indicated in the current epidemiological data.
The Question to be posed; what we, as Christians, human being, government, especially as church leaders, can do to deal with the issue?
The Reasons for Involvement
There is no doubt that Church (religious leaders) has a prominent position within the congregation of the Church in Timor Leste. Timor Leste is known as a country, where tradition and religion are strongly linked, religious leaders are in a position to be strong champions in the fight against HIV and AIDS,, as the people listen attentively to the religious leaders of the Church.
HIV and AIDS pandemic is a threat to human dignity. Where stigma and discrimination prevail, people with HIV and AIDS in Timor Leste, are shunned. People with HIV and AIDS are stigmatized; they often remain silent, out of fear. They will continue to remain in silent, ignorant, powerless, and exploited.
Religious leaders can promote responsible behaviour that respects the dignity of all persons and defends the sanctity of life. Religious leaders are profoundly called to be charitable resources for spiritual and social care and raise new funds for prevention and for care and support.
The Church leaders should follow the example of the master, Jesus, who cares for the neglected and sick people. Serving marginalised people, people of HIV and AIDS is the core of our Christian call. Accordingly all these persons have worth and dignity, rooted simply in who they are, and not in what they do or achieve. This conviction about the preciousness of every life grounds the Church's teachings about HIV and AIDS. People living with HIV and AIDS face discrimination which is dehumanizing and suffering which strips the person's sense of worth and dignity. All forms of discrimination are wrong, whether in housing, jobs, insurance, health care, or religion. All people are encouraged to respect the dignity of others, both in their personal feelings and interactions and in the structures of society.
Religious leaders, therefore, should be doing something positive to respond to HIV and AIDS in the light of Jesus’ commandment to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself ’(Luke 10:27). In this context, a good church leadership is essential. What religious leaders say and do can have an important impact on those who attend the mass and on people in the local community.
Ideas for action
It is beneficial to involve religious leaders because religious leaders can give encouragement to members of the church, they often have links to other churches, organisations and people in positions of responsibility in the community, and links to networks at the national level, since they are responsible for preaching sermons on Sundays, they have an important role in teaching about issues related to HIV and AIDS.
All religious leaders should show their compassionated, loved characters leadership in care to the people of HIV and AIDS infections. Religious leaders should raise their voice to break the silence about stigmatization and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS. Raise discussions and awareness about HIV and AIDS epidemic in Churches, within religious leadership structures and in the broader community.
Religious leaders should offer compassion and promote reconciliation for people living with HIV and AIDS. Religious leaders should collaborate with other religious leaders, faith based coalitions and community leaders to find common beliefs, spiritual teaching moral that can help prevent HIV and alleviate the suffering of those affected by HIV/AIDS. Religious Leaders should accept the HIV infections wholeheartedly into the Church community. Religious leaders continue to visit them at hospitals or other centres where they live
Pope John Paul II to a Vatican AIDS conference, 1989, said "The necessary prevention against the AIDS threat is not to be found in fear, but rather in the conscious choice of a healthy, free and responsible lifestyle"
Rather than creating stigma around PLHIV and associating them with immorality, religious leaders should show more compassion and offering their support. They should also commit to raising funds in churches and other related places for the fight against HIV/AIDS. (Kasmir Nema, SVD)