- A group of prominent and renowned church leaders in Lesotho showed their commitment to promote dignity, equality and rights of all people, especially those living with HIV/AIDS in front of King Letsie III and Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili. They also pledged to discuss openly issues around HIV/AIDS - treatment, shun negative statements that the disease is a divine punishment as well as break negative cultural barriers.
The signing of what is called a commendable pledge comes at a time when Lesotho has been challenged by the scourge of the global pandemic. The kingdom has registered one of the highest HIV prevalence in the world, with 23.2% of people aged 15-49 in Lesotho living being HIV positive.
“This is the first time that the ecumenical society has spoken out with one powerful voice, and we are strategically placed to reach people from all walks of life and be catalysts for positive and lasting action” said Reverend Daniel Rantle from the Methodist Church of Africa.
Statistics from the National AIDS Commission (NAC) and UNAIDS estimated about 29,000 new infections in 2007, implying 80 infections a day, which brings the number of people living with HIV to over 270,000. Over 16,000 of the HIV population are children under 14.
It is also reported that 55% of Lesotho's 180,000 orphan populations have been orphaned by the pandemic.
“The tragic toll of the AIDS epidemic brings compelling urgency to the call for a renewed commitment by religious leaders to achieve Universal Access for All to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support as well as impact mitigation”, the presiding Superintendent, Reverend Mokhakhlane, from the Lesotho Evangelical Church, said in a declaration speech.
The Chief Executive of NAC, Keketso Sefeane said, "Religious personalities play a critical and important advocacy role in curbing stigma and discrimination against families living with HIV and AIDS."
He said his office and the UN have been closely collaborating with religious leaders and faith based organisations to respond to the HIV epidemic.
Lesotho's religious community's role to assist in halting or reversing the rate of HIIV spread has been recongnised. But a training of senior church leaders on the subject in June 2007 was like a manna from heaven: religious leaders pledged to create a common front to combat the spread of HIV and support those living with HIV and AIDS.
Archbishop B. Mohlalisi of Roman Catholic Church expressed their desire to exploit the fruits of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue to respond to HIV and AIDS. “As church leaders, we have committed ourselves before our people to show them that they are not alone, we are united in this mission and are all accountable to one another and will work hand in hand to find innovative solutions to respond to this crisis” he said.
Church leaders also vowed to implement policies, strategies and frameworks within religious institutions and structures to combat any marginalization of people living with or affected by HIV. They expressed readiness to partner with humanitarian groups to voice out a collective call to achieve “Universal Access [to ARVs] for all” and ensure that people living with HIV have access to the full range of education, counseling, voluntary HIV testing and care and support.
In Lesotho, the strength of churches is felt in both the education and health sectors - they own 90% and 50% of schools and hospitals respectively.
In most communiites, especially in rural areas, religious leaders play an important role in shaping the lives of people because people see them as spiritual pillars endowed with trusted source of guidance, moral support and advice on everyday issues.
Mr. Mahesh Mahalingam, UNAIDS Coordinator, pointed out that "Bishops, reverends and pastors provide spiritual and psychological support to families and children affected by HIV and AIDS, especially orphaned and vulnerable children. They also help mobilize community support and overcome silence, denial and fear".
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