Attention to the nexus between religion and HIV/AIDS policy in sub-Saharan Africa has started to emerge as a new field of inquiry since the late 1990s, at the same time healthcare professionals have started to see religious organizations as potential partners in the fight against the epidemic after years of suspicion, writes Philippe Denis (University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) in the Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions (October/December 2013).
The desire to better understand the role of faith-based organizations has provided opportunities for research sponsored both by religious and health and development organizations. While theologians in South Africa had already been reflecting on AIDS since the early 1990s, the boom in literature started after 2000.
In quantitative terms, South Africa stands at the top of that production, due to the intensity of the crisis as well as to the quality of research infrastructure and strength of Christianity there. Very few publications deal with Islam, and a small number with traditional religion, with most focusing on Christianity.
Denis identifies four leading areas of research. The first one is religious affiliation as a predictor of HIV infection and the effectiveness of church-based prevention. Assessments are contrasted between those who claim that religion has little impact on sexual behavior of most Africans and those who suggest it has an impact, though not in those groups with an emphasis on faith healing, where HIV prevalence is reported to be highest.
The second area of research is on religion and public health. Christian involvement in health matters has been present since colonial times in Africa, but HIV/AIDS has boosted it, with international institutions selecting Christian healthcare institutions as funding conduits. They are present on the ground and are assumed to be reliable. A challenge may be coming, however, with international organizations intending to use more the national public health systems in African countries, which might force religious institutions to create new partnerships with them.
The third area of research has been treatment, care and the operation of therapeutic communities. It appears that Christians are at the forefront of efforts to mitigate the effects of the epidemic more than Muslims, possibly because Christians tend to be better educated and better organized. The religious sector is particularly active in aspects such as support groups or orphan care, however, this remains underresearched.
A fourth area of research has been a “theology of HIV/AIDS.” It has become clear that “the thinking of religious leaders is, or has become, less monolithic than is commonly thought,” at least among Christians, since much less is known about Muslims. This can probably be explained by the considerable amount of theological work on HIV/AIDS. Denis notes that such reflection started early, but it has become increasingly institutionalized, with the World Council of Churches establishing the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa in 2002.
Denis concludes that there is a growing recognition that HIV/AIDS is not only a biomedical phenomenon, but that it affects other fields, including religion.
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