and encouragement can be compromised when churches encourage people to pray to
be cured and stop taking their antiretrovirals (ARVs). Although this is rare,
there are a small minority of pastors from different denominations who
choose to remain vague about healing and HIV and, often inadvertently, lead
some members of their congregations to stop treatment.
message that God cures HIV through prayer is not necessarily intended to mean
“without medicine”. But it can be misinterpreted by congregation members.
instances where people have actually stopped treatment are not as rare as we
may think,” says Winnie Sseruma. “A combination of strong religious beliefs and
massive doses of denial, fear and sometimes mental health issues often lie
behind these decisions.”
Faith and HIV in
Action3 is a report examining a survey of African
faith leaders and churchgoers in England, conducted by the National
African HIV Prevention Programme (NAHIP) in 2007-08. The 66 participants were
Christian faith leaders, church elders or clergy or congregation members of a
black-majority church. All but two were Protestant and 63% defined themselves
as Pentecostal, a movement within Christianity that places special emphasis on
a direct personal experience of God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit.
a small proportion of respondents (15%) were aware of people in their
congregation living with HIV, while 12% were sure there were none and nearly
three-quarters were unsure.
but two leaders participating (97%) knew that ‘There
are HIV medicines that can help people with HIV to stay healthy’, though
two-thirds did not know that almost one in 20 of all black Africans living in England was
living with HIV.
When it came to asking more theological
questions, most leaders surveyed had reasonably liberal or compassionate
attitudes: 84% disagreed with ‘HIV/AIDS is punishment
from God for sin’, and 70% disagreed that ‘the suffering of those living with
HIV/AIDS should be exalted as a virtue’.
Attitudes towards whether HIV infection can
be cured were rather different. Only a slight majority believed that ‘There is
no cure for HIV infection once someone has it’. And three-quarters believed
there are people who have been cured of HIV through prayer alone, although no-one
felt that taking antiretrovirals ‘showed a lack of faith in God’.
someone with an undetectable viral load stops their antiretrovirals, their
viral load may remain undetectable for quite some time. At this point people
may believe that they have been cured of HIV by prayer and their experience used
as an example within a church to encourage others to stop treatment.
churches rely on donations from the congregation, so if a church leader
develops a reputation for ‘curing’ people, more people will attend and more
money will be donated.
Faith and HIV in
comments: “The belief that there are people who have been cured of HIV might
become problematic, especially for people whose adherence to antiretroviral
therapy leads to an undetectable viral load which is subsequently interpreted
as a cure.”
there have been cases of people dying after stopping their antiretrovirals,
believing they will be cured by prayer. African organisations recognise a need
to engage faith leaders of all denominations in discussions about HIV
prevention and treatments.
Bella says: “People respect their pastors and listen to them; pastors
should learn about HIV and how it’s treated. I disagree that prayer on its own
can cure HIV. I’ve seen people who have become born-again Christians and
stopped their medication, and a friend of mine died because she stopped. She
didn’t even remember her children and thought she was in Uganda.”
adds: “In my opinion, young people are not taught the dangers of HIV in
schools. Pastors should be teaching them how to protect themselves. Will our
children just think that if they get it they can pray it away?”