Thursday 13 March 2014

What's faith got to do with it?

Lina Ayoubi, from the Islamic Council of Victoria, was one of the
speakers at a recent Melbourne forum for religious leaders.
Photo: Dan Walls, courtesy of the Multicultural Health
and Support Service (MHSS).  
For people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, quite a lot.

Hand in Hand, a forum on HIV for religious leaders in Melbourne on 11 March heard that for many people with HIV from CALD communities, spiritual faith is central to their lives, but the stigma associated with HIV, and silence from church, mosque and temple, can lead to isolation and distress.  

Speakers representing several peak religious bodies in Victoria expressed concern about this isolation and stigmatisation, and discussed how the core principles of their faiths could – and should – inform both care and support for people with HIV, and community-based HIV prevention and awareness programs.

Over forty people attended the forum, which addressed the role of spiritual and community leaders in preventing HIV transmission in migrant and refugee communities. Hand in Hand was organised by the Multicultural Health and Support Service (MHSS), a program of the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health in Victoria. It was the third in a series of cross-sectoral Multicultural Sexual Health Network (MHSN) forums on BBV/STI prevention issues for CALD communities.

Carol el Hayek, Burnet Institute.
Photo: Dan Walls, courtesy of MHSS.
The Burnet Institute’s Carol El-Hayek kicked off proceedings with an overview of global, national and Victorian HIV statistics.  Carol told us that of the roughly 260 people diagnosed with HIV in Victoria each year, approximately 4% were from sub-Saharan Africa and 10% were from South East Asia. This data brought home to the religious leaders present the importance of ensuring that their healthcare chaplaincies included HIV.


Following on from the data presentation, the Reverend Stephen Delbridge, representing the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, brought the issue of stigma into focus with his brief historical account of the Anglican church’s activities in the HIV response internationally. He noted the Council of African Provinces in Africa 2002 Statement that ‘AIDS is not a punishment from God’ and ‘Stigma is a sin!’; a ‘silent killer’, which challenged prevailing ideas about people with HIV being sinful and immoral.   

In Australia, Stephen said, the Anglican Church identified HIV as a potential issue for CALD congregations in 2009 but he acknowledged that it has not been prioritised since then. Like all the speakers, however, he was keen to participate in further collaboration around the issue.

Tenets of faith

Stigma was also addressed from the point of view of religious principles by the next two speakers – Lina Ayoubi from the Islamic Council of Victoria and Hojun Futen, representing the Buddhist Council of Victoria.  

Lina outlined Muslim ideas about health, illness, sexual behaviour and medical ethics. In relation to medical ethics, for example, she described the Muslim concept of reducing harm – that ‘necessity overrides prohibition’, and ‘accept the lesser of two harms’.

Quoting hadiths (sayings of the prophet Muhammad) that invoke attitudes of compassion and caring towards people who are sick, Lina said that people who have HIV have a right to Islamic pastoral care.

In relation to prevention, Lina said that while not all Muslims may be able to adhere to the ideals of abstinence, marriage and faithfulness, Islam teaches forgiveness for people who 'make mistakes'. 'For those people, we need to put in place protective measures and help them', she said.

Lina said that it was important for Muslim scholars and leaders to address underlying social issues related to HIV, such as poverty, gender imbalance and stigma. She also felt there was a need for a national HIV awareness campaign that had input from communities.

Hojun Futen, Buddhist Council of Victoria.
Photo: Dan Walls, courtesy of MHSS.
Hojun described the structure and basic precepts of Buddhism to provide context for his thoughts on Buddhist leaders’ role in the HIV response. In essence, the precepts for an ordinary (lay) person boil down to attitudes of compassion and wisdom – which he poetically compared to the two wings of a bird.  Putting these values into action means taking full responsibility for one’s own actions, understanding the consequences of your actions, and doing no harm to others. He commented that the concept of Karma may be misused to make judgements about people and reinforce stigma, but it should in fact be the foundation for compassion.  

Hojun told the forum that the lack of a centralised structure for Buddhism, and lack of resources for the Buddhist Council, may make it more challenging for Buddhist leaders to engage around HIV, but he said that the data presented by Carol made it clear that they needed ‘to be out there and involved’.

A forum for understanding

Having been raised in a Christian family, I personally found Lina and Hojun’s ‘backgrounder’ explanations of Islam and Buddhism very valuable because they enhanced my understanding of their faiths. A deeper understanding of different religions is surely a vital foundation for any collaborative work between HIV organisations and religious leaders.

The final speaker in the first session, Marg Hayes from the Catholic HIV/AIDS Ministry, began by commenting that although there may have been silence from the Church in Australia in relation to ‘talking’ about HIV, there has been no silence in relation to ‘doing’. She gave the example of the Anglican and Catholic Nuns Sister Hilda and Sister Greta, who had played important caring roles at Fairfield Hospital in the early years of the epidemic in Australia. I was reminded of the similar contributions of Sister Margaret Mines, the nuns at Sacred Heart Hospice, and the Metropolitan Community Church in Sydney.

However, Marg also acknowledged the limitations of the Church thus far in the Australian response, and threw some hard questions back to the participants. How do we [faith leaders] convey to people with HIV that they are welcome and respected?, she asked. How do we make more space to talk about HIV? How can we encourage people to step up and be tested, to start treatment?

Marg concluded by encouraging those present to seek out information and to learn from others. She recommended organisations such as the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and Positive Muslims South Africa,   and said faith leaders must, ‘most of all’, listen to people with HIV.

Suzy Malhotra from Living Positive Victoria (LPV) also stressed the importance of listening to the ‘lived experience’ of people with HIV and explained their vital role in the HIV response. Suzy highlighted LPV’s PositiveSpeakers Bureau and the ENUF campaign, which includes a ‘pledge to challenge HIV stigma whenever and wherever I see it’.

Thou shalt not stigmatise .... L-R: Stephen Delbridge, Hojun Futen, Marg Hayes, and Lina Ayoubi.
Photo: Dan Walls, courtesy of MHSS.

Next steps

The pledge is one of many actions people can take to end stigma. The forum addressed other actions relevant to faith leaders in an interactive panel discussion.  Suggestions included: raising awareness (for example through Friday prayers), making HIV more visible, encouraging service providers to ‘listen to the spiritual side’ of their clients and ‘respond to the whole person’, taking responsibility to correct inequalities, and building partnerships between faith and HIV organisations.  The AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne this July was also mentioned as a good opportunity to raise the profile of HIV within communities.

Samuel Muchoki from MHSS outlined the services next steps in building partnerships, which included involvement in interfaith activities at and prior to AIDS 2014, seeking community feedback on an MHSS resource for religious leaders, and ongoing meetings and workshops between faith leaders and the HIV sector. 

Alison Coelho, MHSS Manager, also described the sorts of practical assistance the service could provide in terms of resources, community education and capacity building. Noting the different perspectives of mainstream, secular HIV service organisations and strongly faith-based CALD communities, she suggested that the MHSS can act as a bridge to enable religious organisations' full participation in the HIV response.

The forum was an important milestone in starting conversations about the role of spiritual leaders in responding to HIV in Australia, particularly in communities where spiritual faith is highly valued. During my work on AFAO’s HIV and African communities project I’ve become very aware of the need for constructive engagement with faith leaders, and I felt that the forum could provide an useful model for other organisations around Australia.

It provided a valuable opportunity for participants to gain a better understanding of faiths they were not familiar with, and appreciate their shared values of compassion, care, and justice. Perhaps more importantly, it provided a safe and respectful space for religious and community leaders to reflect on how they can be part of the HIV response, and how they can work to overcome the stigmatisation and judgement that unfortunately are too often practiced in the name of religion.

A full report, presentations from the day and evaluation will soon be available on the MHSS website. If you would like to provide feedback on the MHSS resource or be kept informed about future developments, email Samuel Muchoki.

Videos now online

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.