What about Compassion?
by Trish Madigan
At the recent Dialogue on Interfaith Cooperation in Yogyakarta, sponsored by the governments of Indonesia and Australia, and attended by delegates from 13 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the issue of "Community Responses to HIV-AIDS in PNG" was addressed by a delegation of political and religious leaders from PNG. The delegation included its leader Lady Carol Kidu, Minister for Social Welfare and Development, the only woman parliamentarian in the PNG government, Anglican Bishop Peter Fox, Catholic Archbishop Brian Barnes and two Muslim leaders, Mikhail Abdul Aziz and Yaqub Amaki.
In their presentation to the Dialogue, the PNG delegation told of the devastation that HIV/AIDS was wreaking throughout their country with causes that were social, cultural and economic. PNG is a very complex country, with 80% of the population living in remote places. With low literacy levels it is a land of great challenges and great potential. Christians work well together, with the Anglican and Catholic Churches having a formal Covenant relationship. The Christian churches are also developing good relations with those who belong to other faiths. The HIV crisis has brought everyone together to work more closely together to combat the disease and its effects on the community. But, there is often a large gap between the religious injunction and the real experience of people in the community.
The first case of HIV was diagnosed in 1987 and for about ten years the government was in denial. Now it is "well past denial", the delegation said, and is promoting various educational and health programs among the people.
Lady Kidu acknowledged that one of the best known programs in countering HIV/AIDS is the "ABC" program - Abstinence, B - Be faithful, C - use Condoms. However she stressed that ABC is not an empowering message for women. They can still get AIDS from unfaithful men. She would want to add D - Delay sexual activity and Don't stigmatize. Further, for women, the ART program for preventing HIV infections has been found to be more empowering since it addresses the wider cultural and social issues. The ART program consists of A - Alcohol abuse, R - Rape and violent sexuality and T - talk, talk, talk.
Public discussion of the AIDS issue has been difficult in PNG where there open discussion of sexual matters is taboo, especially in mixed gender situations. Poverty and the status of women are major issues. Poverty is endemic - both in rural areas and in the form of poverty of opportunity. In many ways women are most vulnerable and face more difficulties with the breakdown of protective customs. As development occurs women are acquiring new responsibilities while losing clearly defined safeguards. The new situation requires partnership between government and churches and religious leaders. The fostering of inter-generational and inter-gender discussions, in culturally sensitive ways, is seen to be most important.
The delegation from PNG agreed that it is imperative that the approach taken is one of compassion, not judgment. When religion is used to blame and stigmatize, when people have been presented with the idea that HIV/AIDS is a judgment of God or a "curse", they have left the church and are then out of reach for assistance.
A Muslim leader present told the story of a Muslim man with HIV/AIDS who had four faithful wives. They also became infected and, when he died, they each married other faithful Muslim men. Eventually they and all their partners died with the disease. He told this story to illustrate that AIDS was a disease that widely affected people who were faithful to their religion and in their relationships. To see HIV/AIDS as a curse from God is not consistent with religious belief in a loving and merciful God.
From their experience in PNG the religious and political leaders have learnt much about appropriate ways to address the threat that HIV/AIDS poses for their country. They agree that there is no easy "fix". Programs, they believe, need to be informative, preventative, curative and formative. There is a need to fit theology with the reality, not vice-versa. Empowerment of the marginalised should be a primary strategy, together with a re-theologizing about women. There is a need for fundamental compassion, love and dignity. Churches are stepping in where the family is rejecting. The religious leaders agreed: there is a danger that religion will become irrelevant if it takes a dogmatic approach that is lacking in compassion.