AIDS gathering ends churches’ silence

Published October 1, 2001

Father Gigeon Byamugisha of Uganda moved conference delegates to tears with descriptions of life as a priest infected with AIDS.

Boksburg, South Africa

A conference on HIV/AIDS held here last summer, has forever wiped out the Anglican church’s silence and denial surrounding the pandemic, church leaders say.

The conference in August, marked a sea change in attitude and opened the doors to real planning, leadership and future dialogue, according to African bishops, clergy and international partners.

AIDS killed 2.4 million people in sub-Saharan Africa in the year 2000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town said at the closing service of the four-day day conference, “Some found AIDS more tolerable when it was considered a homosexual disease, or indeed a black person’s disease.” However, he added that the scene has now changed, and he condemned the church’s past attitudes.

“Frankly, our lack of action, our prejudice, our indifference, places a sentence on those we have chosen to ignore. Our abuse of scriptures and authority in these matters is shameful.”

Just days after the conference, Archbishop Ngundane called on all governments in Africa to declare a state of emergency as a result of HIV/AIDS. This was part of a plan developed at the conference.

“As in a state of war, all government agencies should be in a state of alert,” he said. “This issue should not just be domesticated in the health department. It affects all of us across the board.”

The archbishop did not promote the use of condoms, but emphasized that the church’s calling was for people “to abstain from sex or to be faithful.”

He qualified those remarks. “We realize that we live in a real world with human imperfection. Our vocation as Anglican Christians is to save souls but we must also save lives.”

A planning framework document entitled “Our Vision, Our Hope: First Step” included offering HIV and AIDS pastoral care and counseling and support to AIDS orphans.

“We commit to being central to networks of community support, to meet the health care and basic needs of those who are orphaned, ill or excluded due to HIV, freeing them to productive life as long as their health permits,” the document says.

The conference included workshops on women and AIDS, leadership, AIDS orphans, care, death and dying.

Andrew Ignatieff, director of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund PWRDF), attended the conference as an international partner. PWRDF has 12 programs in east and central Africa to help with AIDS and reproductive health education. “I really got a sense of the magnitude of the problem for the first time,” Mr. Ignatieff said in an interview.

“One had the impression that in some parts of Africa this was a conversation that had never happened before – certainly it had not happened between countries and between ecclesiastical provinces.”

In the past, Mr. Ignatieff said the front-line workers, including parish priests, nuns, and community development workers, were forced to deal with AIDS in isolation. “They were not getting support and direction from above, from the bishops and primates,” he said. “At the conference, bishops were talking to their priests and community workers in some cases for the first time about this issue and with great openness.”

He added: “Priests find it difficult to discuss from the pulpit when they don’t have the information they need to have. But the church is in a position to step in ? and do some real good.”

The church, he added, also had a unique role to play in breaking down the stigma attached to those suffering from AIDS, and to AIDS orphans. He told the story of one family of five AIDS orphans whose village had promised the parish priest they would take care of the children.

“All that meant was that food was left 100 feet from the house. Other children rejected them so they refused to go to school. The head of the family was 10 years old,” he said.

One day-care centre which is assisted by PWRDF with 75 children in it, has lost three staff members to AIDS in the past year, and 25 of the children must stay in the centre because their parents are dead or dying of AIDS.

At a hospice also assisted by PWRDF, Mr. Ignatieff saw a sight that stays with him. “There was one little boy there, 14 months old. His father had died as soon as the family arrived at the hospice and his mother died that morning. The child’s body was a mass of running sores from opportunitistic infections. He had been infected in utero, or from breast-feeding. What happens to them? Little, little kids are dying. It’s horrible.”

Father Gideon Byamugisha of Uganda, who was infected with AIDS in 1992, spoke to the conference in a way that moved many to tears.

Describing his life as an African priest with AIDS, he told of one parish where some people refused to come to holy communion if he was the celebrant. At a meeting in Rwanda, clergy tried to prevent him from speaking, saying “you have no testimony.”

“People are not testing for HIV, they are not abstaining, they are not using condoms, so should we be so surprised that our infections are rising? So I ask people that the emphasis put on lawful sex should also be put on safe sex.”

Mr. Byamugisha criticized the South African government’s ABC approach to AIDS – “Abstinence, Being faithful and Condoms.” Calling it “simplistic, stigmatizing and misleading,” he said that 61 per cent of African women living with AIDS have been in faithful, monogamous relationships. He insisted that testing is the key.

“When I knew I was positive I said that I have the responsibility not to give the virus to anyone else. But other people do not know. This is something that we as a church should really tackle.”

Mr. Byamugisha’s address to the 2001 Primates’ Meeting in Kanuga, N.C., was acknowledged as a pivotal act that had moved the Anglican leaders worldwide to make AIDS a priority.


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