“I believe we need an advocacy strategy to listen, share experiences, and address the issues we face in working for treatment adherence,” said Rev. Dr Nyambura Njoroge, World Council of Churches Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (WCC-EHAIA) coordinator as she addressed a consultation on HIV Treatment Adherence and Faith Healing in Africa on 5 September.
Two days later, religious leaders and governmental organization representatives from across Africa and beyond met in Kampala, Uganda, to explore what it means to be healed and to offer healing, in the context of a disease that has no cure.
At the heart of the issues addressed at the consultation lies the phenomenon of “faith-healing only”, where some faith communities have begun encouraging people living with HIV to stop taking their anti-retroviral drugs, claiming that they can be healed by faith alone – a practice that can have devastating consequences for the work towards overcoming HIV and AIDS.
So how can the issue of “faith-healing only” be understood and addressed, to ensure that people living with HIV adhere to treatment? How can bridges be built to those among “faith-healing only” practitioners who are open to dialogue? And what does it mean to believe, to be healed, in a context where there is no cure?
Medicine and faith healing: science, spirituality or both?
“I believe, to overcome HIV,” said Rev. Canon Prof. Gideon B. Byamugisha from the Anglican Church, Province of Uganda, “we need to overcome the dichotomy between science and spirituality. The God of life is also the God of science. Everything that gives life, that encourages life – and this includes not only the air we breathe and the water we drink, but also the wonders of science, such as medicine and anti-retroviral treatment – we should view as a gift from God.”
Reflecting on the issue of “faith-healing only prophets”, Gideon added, “We should not be afraid that there are those who call themselves prophets. We are all in a prophetic movement. People who are saying human rights and human dignity must be affirmed, that is a prophetic movement. So let us not be intimidated, but pray for the wonders of science too.”
Aisha Usman, Northwest Zone coordinator for the Nigeria chapter of the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS, continues, “we need to take a common stand. It happened to me long ago, when I was very sick, I was told I shouldn’t take my drugs, that I should go for deliverance instead. Refusing, I was locked up in a room for two years, until I was discovered by the Catholic Church.”
“What the Catholics did,” Usman said, “was they brought me out, took me to their church and let me stay there, they bought the drugs for me. I took the drugs for a year right there in their church, and I got well. Now that is what I call faith healing.”
From witness to strategy, finding common ground for action
The consultation in Kampala is one of two similar consultations on HIV treatment adherence and faith healing in Africa taking place this month, the second one convening in Kigali, Rwanda on 25-29 September. Among the expected long-term outcomes are a manual on capacity building for people living with HIV and faith leaders on treatment adherence and advocacy on positive use of faith in HIV response; and to inspire a counter-movement against ”faith-healing only”, led by faith communities in each country represented.
Charles Serwanja, programme manager of health and HIV/AIDS at the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, reflected on the importance of communities from a variety of faiths finding common ground on concerns of health and healing.
“From the Ugandan context, we know that until we as faith-based organizations can come together to agree on common positions, on common messages, common processes together, we will have fragmentations and interventions across the board, and the government becomes suspicious about what we are doing.”
“But we also know that there is a power in religious leaders coming together, generating common positions and speaking with one voice, on many issues, including HIV and AIDS. If we could mobilize those faith communities that are today not part of our inter-religious work to become part of the discussion, I believe many of the challenges we see today, in communities issuing controversial statements on faith healing and encouraging people to stop taking their anti-retroviral drugs, could stop.”
“Because with testing for HIV and for treatment, common messages are very key in mobilizing the communities to uptake services.”
“After two days listening to testimonies, presentations, and crying with people whose stories are so touching,” reflected Julienne Munyaneza, consultant with the PEPFAR-UNAIDS Faith Initiative, “I ask myself if we shouldn’t review our funding mechanisms for some of the issues we are addressing, or the way we are addressing them. Sometimes we seem to be stuck in old stories, in the way we have been doing things, and we miss the new developments around HIV and AIDS, especially in connection with the theme of ‘faith-healing only’.”
“But this theme is not new,” Munyaneza concluded. “It has come up in many of our discussions during the PEPFAR-UNAIDS Faith Initiative. Although we don’t really have the statistics, we know people in various countries have died because of ‘faith-healing only’.
But what has become clear at this consultation, is that God uses also medication to heal people, and that there are many different definitions of what it means to be healed. I believe it is time to take this theme and the concerns we have raised and addressed here, to the next level”.