A billboard showing traditional and religious leaders holding hands in the fight against AIDS is a common feature in Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital, but overzealous church leaders claiming to cure HIV with prayer are now causing more harm than good.
A pastor in southern Malawi recently hit the headlines when he told five HIV-positive people in his church to stop taking antiretroviral (ARV) medication because they had been treated by prayer. Dodgy traditional healers touting their "cures" for AIDS are also proliferating. The government has drawn up legislation, currently before parliament, to muzzle anyone claiming they can cure AIDS.
"As government we cannot tolerate people who are deliberately spreading lies about a cure for AIDS, which is not there. All we want is to regulate information going out to the public, which is misleading at the moment and may result in problems on the part of innocent people," said Dr Mary Shawa, secretary for Nutrition, HIV/AIDS in the President's office.
Keeping the faith
Joyce Chimenya, a faithful churchgoer at the Assemblies of God Church in Kanjedza township, one of Blantyre's middle-class suburbs, believes prayer can heal any ailment.
"If you believe in God you can be healed of any disease, including HIV and AIDS. I have been part of a lot of healing sessions in my church and I believe that our Lord Jesus never fails," Chimenya told IRIN/PlusNews.
Televangelism has also become increasingly popular in the conservative country. Churches such as the Living Waters and Calvary Family regularly broadcast programmes on Television Malawi (TVM), and their pastors spend much of their time preaching messages of hope, with the emphasis on healing miracles and how millions have been saved from abject poverty.
Most of the pastors are cautious about saying they can cure AIDS, but openly say to viewers: "All those that are sick should touch their television sets and, using the other hand, touch where they are feeling unwell."
Fatsani (last name withheld), a congregant of the Living Waters Church, commented, "In our church we believe in divine intervention when we are faced with any problem, be it AIDS or poverty. Yes, antiretroviral drugs are important for AIDS patients, but people need Jesus most.
"We have seen people here getting healed and test HIV negative afterwards because of the power of prayer; people who do not get deliverance after being prayed for, lack faith."
United against stigma
Bishop Joseph Bvumbwe, chairman of the Malawi Council of Churches, condemned recent claims by church leaders that they could cure HIV-positive people and said the church's stand on people living with HIV was unchanged.
"AIDS patients need our support. It is unbiblical to mislead people on HIV and AIDS when many have already succumbed to the disease. As church we encourage support and treatment for all those that have been affected," he said.
"AIDS is not an issue that is new in the church. We are telling people that they should not throw stones at those that are living with the virus, we have all fallen short of God's glory and AIDS patients or HIV-positive people are not sinners."
Justin Malewezi, Malawi's former vice-president, now chairman of the parliamentary committee on health and of the Malawi HIV and AIDS Partnership Forum, which works with UNAIDS, said the issue of suffering and pain, "and the culture of blame that is evident in faith communities" should be addressed.
"I hear so many churchmen talk about HIV and AIDS as a punishment from God. This is wrong, and contrary to the teaching of every religion. Although AIDS is something relatively new in the experience of humanity, it is not a curse sent by God and it is not a punishment on the world for evil or for promiscuity."
He said the church should acknowledge the weakness of its clergy and lay members. "It should acknowledge that members of the faith community may be HIV infected, but that is the reason for service and compassion, and never reason for condemnation."
Dr Lazarus Chakwera, of the Evangelical Association of Malawi, said talking openly about AIDS would be the only way to ensure that people were told the truth about it, as well as issues pertaining to prevention and treatment.
The country's HIV prevalence is about 14 percent, and the government has estimated that over 100,000 Malawians are now on ARVs.