The Prophetic Role of the Church in Egypt Toward HIV/AIDS

One of the major problems we face when dealing with HIV/AIDS is deficient or incomplete knowledge, especially concerning how this disease is transmitted from one person to another. To what extent can a person deal with people who have HIV/AIDS?

HIV/AIDS is a very weak virus that cannot be transmitted through shaking hands, hugging, kissing, using the bathroom and all other normal daily contacts. HIV/AIDS is transmitted only through unsafe sex, blood, mother-to-baby transmission and lactation.

Although there has been a decline in infection rates in some countries and positive trends in young people's sexual behaviors, the global AIDS epidemic continues to grow. There is even compelling evidence that some countries are experiencing a resurgence in new HIV infection rates which were previously stable or declining.

An estimated 39.5 million people are living with HIV.

According to the latest figures published in the UNAIDS/WHO 2006 AIDS Epidemic Update, an estimated 39.5 million people are living with HIV. There were 4.3 million new infections in 2006, with 2.8 million (sixty-five percent) of these occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, statistics showed that infection rates have risen by more than fifty percent since 2004.

In 2006, 2.9 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses.

Middle East and North Africa
AIDS epidemics in the Middle East and North Africa region are diverse. An estimated sixty-eight thousand people contracted HIV in 2006, making the total number of people infected 460,000 persons. Most reported HIV infections have been in men; however, the proportion of infected women is increasing (UNAIDS, 2006).

The impact of HIV/AIDS is far-reaching. It affects not only those who are infected but indirectly affects families, friends, employers and others. HIV/AIDS reduces possibilities for poverty eradication; it may even contribute to increased poverty rates. HIV/AIDS affects health services, education systems, economic growth, emotional well-being and family and community stability. Consequently, governments, development organizations, churches and communities strive to address the increasing impact of HIV/AIDS.

Christian Response to HIV/AIDS
To save future generations, we must understand that HIV/AIDS is not just a biological issue; it is a general issue that needs to be confronted by governments, health ministries, justice ministries, media and religious leaders.

HIV/AIDS is a complex and multifaceted pandemic with a wide variety of interacting causes, sustaining factors and consequences. Therefore, this pandemic demands a holistic mission response from churches. We must make our contribution to fight this disaster by drawing a Christian worldview that seamlessly unites the material, psychological, social, cultural, political and spiritual aspects of life—a worldview that unites evangelism, discipleship, social action and pursuit of justice.

Many African churches have taken the lead in this regard. A few Asian churches are doing the same. Churches in other parts of the world have been slower in response. What is missing is global commitment on the part of all evangelicals to provide what God has given them to fight against this scourge.

One of the biggest barriers to churches working with people with HIV/AIDS is the incorrect belief that HIV is a punishment from God for their wicked practices. Churches must accept the fact that HIV/AIDS is present among church members. That is why our attitude toward HIV/AIDS should not be “Whose fault?” but rather “God’s opportunity to do what?”

Christians must make our contribution to fight HIV/AIDS by drawing a Christian worldview that that unites evangelism, discipleship, social action and justice.

It is time for churches to talk openly with people and rebuild their wrong thoughts about sex and HIV/AIDS. It requires a new understanding of how to live a good and healthy sexual life without being infected with diseases such as HIV/AIDS. The Church plays a role in caring for families in order to improve successful marriages and strong and loving relationships.

Discrimination against women in education and employment opportunities can be one factor of HIV/AIDS dissemination. For example, a woman might become a commercial sex worker as she has no other source of income. Therefore, improving the status of women could be effective in hindering the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

What infected people need is not just compassion; they need to be treated as normal human beings and accepted by the whole of society. The Church must advocate for the rights of people carrying HIV/AIDS to have a job, be a church member, serve God, etc.

When we know people who carry HIV/AIDS because of sinful practices such as adultery, it can be tempting to withhold love from them. If those people infect their faithful partners with HIV/AIDS, the society blames and punishes them by treating them badly. However, Jesus came to save sinners like us. As the Church, we must show grace, love and compassion to all people with the hope that they will become open to being transformed by Jesus. If we do not succeed in changing infected people's behavior, we can at least educate them so that they do not transmit their infection to others.

People infected with HIV/AIDS may be depressed to the extent that they commit suicide. The Church must encourage and convince these people that:

  • there is hope,
  • there is always time for repentance,
  • they are accepted by people,
  • this is not the end,
  • they can continue to live,
  • they can be transformed to become new persons and
  • they can be useful and share their experience with others.

Breaking the Silence in Egypt
The Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church believes in its prophetic role to talk about the issues of sex education and HIV/AIDS that the general society is often silent about. In the past, the Church successfully did the same thing with women’s education issues; it is now time for churches to talk with society and rebuild wrong thoughts about sex and HIV/AIDS.

The Council of Services and Development (CSD), Synod of the Nile of Egypt, has vast experience in health education and awareness campaign programs. These include:

1. Reproductive Health Awareness, STDs & AIDS Program. This is an awareness project developed and implemented by the CSD three years ago. The project covers twenty governorates benefiting around eleven thousand young men and women. Reproductive education is deficient, incomplete or disfigured in most Third World countries. The project’s approach to youth reproductive health is comprehensive and covers the roots of sexual health.

2. Sex and HIV/AIDS Education Program in Schools. This includes four parts.

  • Five training-of-trainers (TOTs) courses for school teachers were implemented; three of them focused on the scientific subject that would be introduced to the students, (i.e. HIV/AIDS and reproductive health awareness). The other two training courses addressed communication skills and educational tools needed to convey this knowledge to students in a culturally appropriate way. There were eighty-four trained teachers from eleven schools.
  • A training manual developed for educators illustrated scientific medical facts as well as methods of communicating these facts to students in a culturally appropriate way. The module included an educational curriculum for HIV/AIDS and sex education to be taught to students. The educational materials used were: CDs, video tapes, awareness leaflets and others.
  • Three public seminars targeting parents were held to raise awareness of the issues of sex education and how to deal properly with adolescent children. The total number of participating parents was 180 (ninety families) from seven schools.
  • Three open activity days were held for school students. These open days offered educational seminars along with social, sports and physical activities. Over seventeen students from seven schools participated.

3. Christian Network Against AIDS (CNAA). The CSD has a number of projects to organize a church-based network against AIDS. Through this network, the church will share the love and passion of Jesus with people through an awareness and education campaign. The central component of the project is to equip network members with funds, training and materials to implement the field activities of the project. Through this endeavour, the church will gain more experience in fulfilling the social gospel; additionally, network members will gain experience in field activities and Christian love will be expressed through community activities.

The Church’s role is to break the silence and talk openly with people to rebuild wrong thoughts about sex and HIV/AIDS. Caring for families in order to produce successful marriages and promote strong and loving relationships is worthwhile in tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, it is necessary for the Church in advocating for the rights of infected people by showing them love, grace and compassion. The Church must treat them as human beings who are accepted by society and give them hope of being transformed by Jesus.

By taking these steps and realizing its prophetic role to the fullest extent, the Evangelical Church could change Egyptian society—and others around the world—to a more understanding and healthy society with more potential for ministry and development.

Rev. Andrea Z. Stephanous is vice president of the Protestant Community of Egypt and director of Dar El Thaqafa Communications House, Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. He received his doctorate in religions and theology from the University of Manchester in Manchester, UK in 2003.