Churches should use their influence and their Gospel message as tools to help reduce the appalling stigma attached to living with HIV in many parts of the world, a leading church HIV activist told UK-based development agency Christian Aid this week.
Speaking on the eve of World AIDS Day (01 December 2006), the Rev Churches should use their influence and their Gospel message as tools to help reduce the appalling stigma attached to living with HIV in many parts of the world, a leading church HIV activist told UK-based development agency Christian Aid this week. James Matarazzo from the international network of religious leaders living with or affected by HIV (Inerela+) said: "To exclude people living with HIV from the Eucharist, as sometimes happens, is anti-gospel. We need to rediscover God's radical inclusiveness at the Eucharist table, in our actions and in our prayers."
Mr Matarazzo, who is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ in Boston, USA, has recently become the Americasí coordinator of Inerela+. The network began in Africa in 2003 as Anerela, but this summer became a global organisation with new support networks across Europe, Asia/Pacific and the Americas.
"We discussed all these issues recently and decided, quite conclusively, that to discriminate against people living with HIV is a sin," Mr Matarazzo explained. "As Christians, we believe that all human beings are made in the image of God and that every one of us has an intrinsic value, regardless of our HIV status."
The vast majority of HIV-positive people live in the developing world, where religion, particularly Christianity and Islam, has a profound influence ñ so Inerela+ can reach millions of people through religious leaders.
Once a religious leader is willing to talk about HIV as a virus, not as a moral issue, congregations are more likely to go for testing and protect themselves against infection. Those who are HIV-positive are also more likely to be fully integrated into church life.
Mr Matarazzo quoted a Catholic Bishop in Bangkok who once told him why he encouraged his HIV-positive congregants to use condoms:
"He told me, he would rather keep his congregants alive than have them not use condoms, as what was the use of a dead congregant who couldnít fulfil his mission."
Dr Evie Vernon from the United Theological College of the West Indies, Jamaica, agreed. She said that although it was extremely difficult to be open about oneís HIV status in Jamaica, church leaders were gradually changing their opinions.
"The important thing is to know your status," she said. "Once you know whether you are HIV-positive or not then you really need to be counselled, which is where the church leaders can come in."
She continued: "At our theological college we ensure that pastors receive training in how to counsel people about HIV. Then, they receive training in how to train others. Slowly we are increasing the number of church leaders in Jamaica who know how to deal sensitively with this issue."