Religious leaders living with HIV face double the stigma

'Religious leaders living with HIV face double the stigma, double the discrimination,' said reverend JP Heath, an Anglican priest from Johannesburg, South Africa, who tested HIV+ 11 years ago.

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He is HIV positive and is a priest - a situation that often raises eyebrows and attracts double the stigma associated with the disease.

"Religious leaders living with HIV face double the stigma, double the discrimination", said reverend JP Heath, an Anglican priest from Johannesburg, South Africa, who tested HIV+ 11 years ago.

"I have faced much stigma", says the priest who has founded INERELA+, an international network of religious leaders ?" lay and ordained, women and men ?" living with, or personally affected, by HIV.

The stigma always arises with the association that HIV comes from "immoral sex" with many forgetting that people could contract diseases through a blood transfusion from an infected person, during a surgery through infected syringes and when an individual comes in contact with infected blood.

"I have always been asked how I contracted HIV", says the priest, with those posing the questions always raising doubts over his integrity and character.

However, the biggest stigma faced by a religious leader was `self stigma', he said."The fear is that you will be rejected. I feared I would be kicked out", Heath, here to attend the two-day interfaith meet on HIV, said.

"I always feared what would happen when I tell my Bishop about my HIV status", he said and went on to elaborate how after hearing him out, his Bishop advised that he should not let others know about his HIV status. "He imposed on me the stigma of silence", he said.

But refusing to be silent, Heath explained how he went about creating awareness about HIV before revealing his condition to his congregation. The awareness session helped his followers to accept him and his condition.

"I was well received", says Heath who then went to use this experience to go out and spread awareness about the disease and break misconceptions associated with it.

"Being HIV+ does not rob me of my skills and many forget that. We often become recipients of pity", he said when such persons were capable of using their skills to deliver a lot of things in daily life.

"Being HIV+ often robs an individual of his persona", as people discriminate and this was the biggest battle that those living with HIV had to fight.

INERELA, a network which works with various countries in Africa and also countries like India, has advocated the SAVE programme which refers to treating HIV/AIDS in a holistic manner. The SAVE complements the ABC principle of Abstain, Be Faithful, Use a Condom, by providing additional information on prevention, care and treatment.

Empowerment is crucial in prevention as often women had no right to negotiate on sexual matters in marital life. Targeting migrant workers, youth and those in high risk group was important in the programme.

Aggressive intensive awareness programme for the next 40 years was necessary to stem the disease. "There are no short term methods", he said.

He said AIDS awareness must begin as young as 10. "It does'nt pay to wait to long", he said. The target was to talk about sex in a positive manner which should be restricted to just one partner rather than talking about it negatively. Negative talk always makes youth rebellious, he said.

Making treatment available for those affected was paramount to reducing risk of spreading the infection.

The biggest point about living with HIV is it brings you back to the core of religion, he says smiling. It makes you more compassionate, understandable and sensitive to others needs.

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