Time to Get Religion

By Kuchment, Anna | Newsweek International, February 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Time to Get Religion


Kuchment, Anna, Newsweek International


The Rev. Evatt Mugagura knows he's lucky to be alive. The 35-year-old Anglican priest grew up in Nyamifura, a western Ugandan village that has been ravaged by AIDS: "Most of the people my age, the ones I studied with, the ones I grew up with, have died." The devastation drove Mugagura to become what many derisively call a "condom priest." He reversed his stance against birth control and began distributing condoms in his parish, personally teaching villagers how to use them. "Losing so many close friends gave me the courage to continue talking," says Mugagura. "Because if I had had a way of reaching them with a condom, I would have them now--sinners as they may be."

Mugagura's views are controversial--and rare. In most of sub-Saharan Africa, Christian churches have stood quietly by as AIDS has decimated whole communities. "The disease has been so long associated with illicit sexual activity that there's been an overpowering silence on the issue," admits the Rev. Ted Karpf, HIV/AIDS missioner for the Anglican Communion in southern Africa. But now a growing number of Western NGOs and development agencies hope to persuade other African churches to follow Uganda's example. There, religious leaders like Mugagura have helped the government cut HIV infection rates from 14 percent in the early '90s to 8.3 percent in 2000 (and they're still falling.) "We've increasingly recognized how important religion is, not only in the care and support of people who are affected by AIDS, but also in our ability to prevent new infections," says Dr. Paul De Lay, acting director of the Office of HIV/AIDS at the United States Agency for International Development in Washington. De Lay says the church is key not only in shaping people's moral decisions, but in operating much of sub-Saharan Africa's infrastructure, where 40 percent of health care is provided by missionary hospitals. Last December his office unveiled a new program that offers grants to faith-based groups in developing countries for AIDS prevention and AIDS treatment programs.

The learning curve will be steep. When HIV prevalence rates were presented at a conference for African religious leaders in New York recently, the audience reacted with gasps of disbelief. "I didn't know it was that bad in Africa," said Msgr. John Aniagwu, a Roman Catholic priest from Nigeria, where one in 10 adults is HIV-positive. In some cases, the clergy's ignorance stemmed from blind faith. …

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