HIV lessons in religious seminaries
Daily Times Monitor
LAHORE: The war on terror has heaped negative attention on religious seminaries in Pakistan. But two non-government organisations (NGOs) view the religious schools’ network as a potential partner in their effort to bring AIDS awareness and prevention to the country, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM).
Contesting the prevalent perception of the epidemic as a Western evil, the NGOs have been working since last year to train clerics and students of religious seminaries that the disease is not confined to drug users, prostitutes, and homosexuals, said the report.
In Pakistan, 2,748 people are reported to be HIV positive, but the international health agencies say the number could be as high as 70,000 to 80,000.
Efforts have been made to involve religious leaders of Muslim countries like Iran, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia in the awareness campaign. Project officials say that their work in the religious seminaries is the first of its kind and could prove a model for other countries with large networks of Islamic schools.
The two organisations, Amal and the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), are following a pattern adopted in the worst hit African countries like Uganda, which has a large number of Muslims. Health workers significantly curbed the spread of HIV there by enlisting community leaders and clerics to help spread the message bolstered by Quranic verses and the Hadith. “Our experience with the seminaries is difficult but very productive. Clerics now talk about AIDS and are willing to spread the message,” Faisal Shafiq, an official in Amal, a health and education NGO based in Islamabad, was quoted as saying in the report. “We have to make compromises on sensitive religious issues like the use of condoms. But we believe we are on the right track.”
“The struggle has been going on between development workers and clerics,” says Syed Abdul Mujeeb, a leading expert on AIDS in Pakistan. “There is apparently no contradiction between the two on taking care of patients, but there are serious hurdles in adopting condom usage to prevent the disease. The clerics believe that approving condom usage will encourage sexual promiscuity.”
Clerics in religious seminaries say they will preach about the disease, but not the use of condoms except within a marriage where the husband is HIV positive.
“We educate the people at mosques that AIDS can be transmitted through infected blood transfusions, the use of infected syringes or a shaving razor,” says Maulana Abdul Mateen, a trained cleric of Jamaa Mosque in Quetta.
“Clerics can play an important role as they have great reach to the public. Today’s student of the seminary will be tomorrow’s cleric. His single sermon highlighting the AIDS issue will impact thousands,” says Syed Amer Raza, health official in the Catholic Relief Services. Stigma is still attached to those who are HIV-positive. Nazir Masih was diagnosed with HIV 12 years ago in Lahore, probably through a blood transfusion. “When I tested positive, doctors frightened me so much that I thought of jumping from the hospital floor. They told my family members to isolate me.
Then I educated myself. Now I work for the welfare of people who are HIV positive.” According to the report in the CSM, the two NGOs say they are working with clerics and students of 10 religious seminaries and will expand their awareness campaign to all over the country after achieving “initial successes”.