The leadership of Zimbabwe's Apostolic Faith (AF) movement, one of the most conservative churches in the country, have embraced a new creed - that of AIDS prevention.
AIDS activists have long complained that despite climbing HIV infection rates, church leaders have been reluctant to effect behaviour change among their members. Now AIDS NGOs have been invited to work with the movement to develop an anti-AIDS strategy for its three million followers.
Over the years, the AF has courted controversy because of its religious beliefs, including polygamy, wife inheritance and the forced marriage of young girls to elders. The use of contraceptives has also been considered as contrary to the teachings of the Bible.
Although the sect was started in Zimbabwe, it is well established in Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia. Easily identifiable by their long, white gowns, clean-shaven heads for men and white head-scarves for women, the sects are a now common feature across Southern Africa.
In a bold move, church leaders recently appealed to the AIDS Policy Advocacy Project (APAP) for assistance in developing an HIV/AIDS mitigation policy, which could see the overhaul of deeply entrenched traditional practices. The APAP is supported by the Futures Group, an international AIDS NGO that targets faith-based organisations.
"We now know that upholding such traditions as polygamy, wife inheritance and forced marriages for our daughters is killing us. We want to change these attitudes, and adopt policies that will save the young and old members of all Apostolic Faiths, by letting them know which ones of our practices are exposing us to HIV/AIDS," an Apostolic Faith elder, Bishop Revai Chitanda, told PlusNews.
Chitanda said increased awareness of the disease among church elders would empower them to inform their congregations of safer sex practices.
"What we want, in the long run, is to spread the anti-AIDS message to all Apostolic Faith outposts in Southern Africa. We are a huge, ever-growing congregation, but we have for long been associated with retrogressive traditions. We now want to be the ones to deliver our people from the vicious cycle of HIV/AIDS - we have already lost too many and we can't stand to lose more," said Chitanda.
Godfrey Tinarwo, a senior HIV/AIDS advocacy specialist with the Futures Group, told PlusNews that the NGO was keen to assist all churches in formulating HIV/AIDS policies. He said although many churches were eager to put HIV/AIDS policies in place, they were ill-equipped to implement them.
"We will continue to work with all faith-based organisations, including the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, in forming networks through which they can form and share HIV/AIDS prevention, care and mitigation policies," Tinarwo explained.
While finding assistance to formulate an AIDS policy had proven easier than expected, Chitanda said the challenge lay in convincing congregations of the benefits of the new policy.
"It is not going to be easy - there are many people who still strongly believe that the beliefs we have been practising are unquestionably correct and God-given. Putting the message of change across is one thing; having it accepted is a different matter altogether," Chitanda commented.
Futures Group International also runs similar programmes in Zimbabwe's Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Zionist congregations.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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