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Mission Possible: Integrating the Church With HIV/AIDS Efforts

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Science  28 Jul 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5786, pp. 482
DOI: 10.1126/science.313.5786.482

TEGUCIGALPA AND JUTICALPA, HONDURAS—Throughout heavily Catholic Latin America, few topics have riled those working to slow the spread of HIV more than the Vatican's opposition to condoms. Many HIV/AIDS workers have also decried what they see as the tendency by many denominations to treat as outcasts the two groups especially hard hit by the epidemic: homosexuals and sex workers. But in Honduras especially, church leaders are now trying to become part of the solution with stepped-up efforts that aim to slow HIV's spread and help the infected.

These church representatives are not, by any means, advocating the use of condoms, as Maryknoll sisters in Guatemala do with sex workers and other at-risk people they help (see p. 480). But representatives from four denominations are working with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is famous for promoting family planning, in the year-old Interreligious Committee to contribute to Honduras's national strategic plan for confronting its HIV/AIDS epidemic. “This is the first time we've worked with faith-based organizations, and the nice thing is we put our position on the table,” says Alanna Armitage, who heads the UNFPA office here. “We would not work with them if we couldn't talk about condoms or they said they weren't effective. There's no more time to fight on this.”

The representatives from the Episcopal, Evangelical, Adventist, and Catholic churches do not speak with one voice about condoms; some think, for example, that they should be promoted if one partner in a marriage is HIV-infected. Nor do they exactly embrace homosexuality. “We don't have a specific program with homosexuals, but where we work, there are people with HIV/AIDS, and we treat them like anyone else,” says Elvia Maria Galindo, a committee member speaking for the Episcopal church. “We're all sinners.”

But Javier Medina, a gay activist here, charges that the religious community—particularly Evangelicals—have fanned the rampant homophobia in the country. He points to marches held by Evangelicals that protested the government's decision in 2004 to officially recognize his group, called Kukulcán, and two other gay organizations. “This created more hatred toward us,” says Medina, adding that a few dozen gay men have recently been killed in hate crimes and that his group has received death threats. This does not reflect the opinion of other denominations, however, says Carmen Molina, the committee's Catholic representative.

Crossing the divide.

Padre Alberto Gauci provides many HIV/AIDS prevention and care services in Juticalpa.

Although Padre Alberto Gauci, a Franciscan, does not condone homosexuality, he's fervently trying to help thwart HIV at a men's prison in Juticalpa, 3 hours from the capital. Gauci, who favors flip-flops, jeans, and T-shirts and looks more like an aging hippie than a clergyman, is on a somewhat quixotic quest to build a new prison in Juticalpa, where he runs an HIV/AIDS orphanage and hospice. The prison, built more than 100 years ago for 90 inmates, currently holds more than 400 men who sleep at least two to a bunk. More than 5% are known to have AIDS. In December 2005, no HIV tests or anti-HIV drugs were available. “The church has to play a role because people have lost all hope with politicians here,” says Gauci, a native of Malta. “Illness is spreading in the prison in a very accelerated way.”

Gauci supports his efforts by running a bakery and occasionally staging horseraces and dogfights on the grounds of his compound. “Gambling is not a sin if you're raising the money for good things,” shrugs Gauci. Now that's working in mysterious ways.

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