In the age of AIDS, can theology kill?

Published August 17, 2006

Faith representatives at the 16th International AIDS Conference debated whether theology is helping or hurting efforts to help people living with the disease and to prevent its spread.

The moral aspect of HIV/AIDS, a disease with is often associated with behaviour that many religions consider wrong, sets it apart from other life-threatening illnesses. At the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto, faith representatives debated whether theology is helping or hurting efforts to help people living with the immune-system disease and to prevent its spread.

While hundreds of faith groups worldwide are at the forefront of caring for people with HIV/AIDS, religion is still often part of the problem, said several members of a six-person panel. AIDS, in its early years, spread quickly among gay men and intravenous drug users. However, it can also be transmitted through heterosexual sex, blood transfusions, childbirth and breastfeeding. Condom use prevents the transmission of the virus during sex, but some religions ban them.

“There has been an escalation of Muslim concern about HIV/AIDS,” said Prof. Farid Esack of Harvard University and founder of Positive Muslims, a South African awareness and support group for Muslims living with HIV/AIDS. “The tenor of debate is higher than in the past, which was marked by scorn and condemnation. There is now a cautious welcome toward condoms, in addition to abstinence and no sex outside marriage. But most Muslims are still at the stage where they feel compassion and pity but ‘it’s not really about us.’ It is very much connected to sin and the price of sin. ‘It doesn’t really happen to us, but to these underclasses. It doesn’t happen to ‘normal’ society.'”

The burden for those with the disease is compounded by messages from faith communities that they are sinful as well as ill.

“We have been complicit (in the spread of AIDS) by our shaming words and deeds, by our failure to listen to and walk with and follow the leadership of people living with HIV/AIDS. We have to claim the capacity we have to be the centres of advocacy and change” said Bishop Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, director of Thailand’s Chiang Mai Buddhist College, said that religions “need to give an opportunity to women to be leaders.” He also noted that his college now has an HIV/AIDS awareness program for students training to become monks.

Dulce Miosotis Alejo Espinal, representing the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS in the Dominican Republic and a Baptist, said that “as Christians, the best way of preventing HIV/AIDS is through abstinence or fidelity,” but Rev. Johannes Petrus Heath, an HIV-positive Anglican priest from South Africa and co-ordinator of an African network of religious leaders affected by HIV/AIDS, disagreed. “I strongly advocate for a more comprehensive approach – safer practices, voluntary testing and treatment. Unless we are more comprehensive, our messages are going to continue to be stigmatizing,” he said.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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