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Churches introduce mandatory HIV testing

In a move bound to elicit unprecedented protests, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe, a grouping of 150 Pentecostal and evangelical churches, has embarked on a historic fight against HIV/AIDS by introducing mandatory testing for all its pastors, marriage officers and would-be couples.
Kholwani Nyathi

The testing for pastors and marriage officers has already commenced, while testing for couples will start next January. Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world with more than 25 per cent of its sexually active population infected with the virus.

However the country outlaws the mandatory testing of HIV/AIDS but the proposed strategy by the churches is set to give a new impetus in the fight against the deadly scourge.

Anti HIV/AIDS campaigners say the proposed measures may provide Africa with a new way of fighting the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

They argue that thousands of Africans infected with the virus are dying premature deaths because they cannot seek early treatment, as they would not be aware of their status.

The Bishop of the assemblies Reverend Trevor Mananga, said Church leaders resolved at their annual conference last year to adopt what he termed a more radical, practical and pragmatic approach in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

He said the Church has a major role to play in fighting the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS in the Zimbabwe and Africa in general.

"Although this might sound rather controversial, discriminatory and infringing on individuals rights, we felt that the only way we could effectively fight this pandemic was through adoption of more pragmatic and practical measures," Rev Mananga said. "Church leaders who daily preach to and counsel church members on various issues, including on HIV/AIDS issues, have to set the pace and lead by example and avoid the notion of do as I say, and not as I do , he added.

"HIV/AIDS is a painful reality that we all continue to witness its effects on a daily basis and as long as we do not come to terms with this reality and take this pandemic head on, then all efforts by Government medical institutions, the church and other stakeholders will come to zero," he said.

"That is why as leaders we sat down and unanimously agreed to set the pace so that our members can emulate."

He said all church leaders under the Pentecostal assemblies of Zimbabwe, pastors and marriage officers have set the ball rolling by going for HIV tests which should be completed by the end of the year before the programme is extended to would-be couples with effect from January 2004.

"What we are saying is, church members should know their HIV status before they can preach on the issue. We are not worried about knowing individual members results after testing, but we are saying that once one knows their status, they can adopt preventive measures in their sexual lives if they are found positive, or avoid any possible risks if they negative," Rev Mananga said.

"And it is only when one knows their status that we can begin fighting the disease more effectively. A would-be couple that is aware of their status and decides to marry would be better counselled to avoid any further infections between them than those without that knowledge .

"If infection occurs during a marriage setup and a couple becomes aware, then they are in a better position to adopt measures to avoid further infections and replication of the virus. More so, it is only after one knows his/her status that one can seek treatment," said Bishop Mananga.

He said it would be absurd for a marriage officer or pastor within a church to sit and counsel a would-be couple on HIV/AIDS issues when they were not aware of their own status

Bishop Mananga reiterated that the declaration of HIV status by members of the church would remain their own discretion.

But all pastors, marriage officers and would-be couples who would have gone for testing would be issued with some form of certification that they were tested and counselled before being married in the church.

Marriage officers without this certification would not be allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies.

Bishop Mananga said the exercise is a long process that is likely to meet a lot of cynicism within the Church and could even see some members leaving the Church, but that would not deter them from implementing it.

He said since the passing of the resolution, pastors embarked on vigorous awareness and education campaigns on the new practice and he expressed satisfaction that the majority of the assemblies members are beginning to appreciate the concept. "

"I am confident that the exercise will take off in earnest next year, judging by the response we are getting from our campaigns. We have incorporated all stakeholders in the campaign and I hope we are going to achieve our goal, that of encouraging people to know their status first before they can start fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic," he said.

A pastor with one of the affiliate churches in Bulawayo said in an interview yesterday that the exercise has been well-received in his church and a number of couples have already undergone pre-marriage testing and counselling.

"Just two weeks after the resolution was passed we already have a number of would-be couples who have responded positively to the call and more members who have been informed of the exercise are joining the church by each day, -contrary to views that this would scare away church members," he said

People interviewed on the issue expressed mixed feelings with some saying the new policy on HIV/AIDS testing introduced by the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe was discriminatory and infringes on personal liberties.

Zimbabwe has a number of HIV/AIDS voluntary testing centres but activists say people are still reluctant to know their status as the disease still carries a lot of stigma.

However, recent statistics released by the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare indicate that HIV/AIDS infections in Zimbabwe declined from 33 per cent to 24.6 percent this year, reflecting the success of various awareness campaigns.

It was the first time that Zimbabwe conducted its own HIV/AIDS prevalence survey as it has been relying on UNAIDS statistics.

In the past, churches in Zimbabwe have played a peripheral role in the fight against the pandemic and the initiative taken by the Pentecostals might be a harbinger for a more active role in the campaign against the world s highest killer disease.

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