April 5, 2006
Ahmed Turky's recent sermon at a small Cairo mosque was unusual both for its topic of HIV/AIDS and its message of understanding and compassion for those infected. Though he did not address condom use, which is considered only a contraceptive for married couples, he said even those who contract HIV in "vulgar" ways should not be shunned.
"The sermons had three points, first what AIDS is, secondly how it is spread, and thirdly that if someone has AIDS it is an obligation of us all not to ostracize them," said Turky, a participant of a UN Development Program (UNDP) workshop on spreading HIV awareness through local religious leaders.
In 2004, senior Islamic leaders publicly endorsed efforts to prevent HIV and end discrimination against those infected.
"You can always do good advocacy on top ... but then trickling down is a completely different story," said Maha Aon of UNAIDS.
A 2004 study found most Egyptian health workers surveyed believe people with HIV should be removed from society, and most university students think people with AIDS are probably "lewd," or "have neither values nor principles."
The UNDP's efforts include information packets demonstrating Islam's willingness to tackle sexual topics. Quotes from the Prophet Mohammad urge compassion and care for the wellbeing of others and are applied to those affected by HIV.
According to 2003 figures, less than 0.1 percent of adults in Egypt have HIV. "There are two things that make us worry," Aon said of those numbers. "If you plot the number of cases reported to the Ministry of Health, it's quite a steep rise. The other thing is that we don't know what the situation is among the most vulnerable groups."
Indeed, stigma and religious condemnations facing those at HIV risk, including men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and sex workers, have pushed the groups underground. However, to expand testing and treatment, Egypt launched anonymous testing in 2004 and since 2005 has provided HIV drugs for free.