Source: World Vision Middle East/Eastern Europe/ Central Asia office
Romanian Orthodox priests are being prepared for the frontlines against the social impact of HIV and AIDS and the discrimination against people living with the virus which is so destructive to individuals and communities.
Some 20 priests from the Romanian communities where World Vision works recently took part in a 'Channels of Hope' workshop designed to help church leaders to take the lead in their communities against the social effects of the HIV epidemic. World Vision staff in Constanta took part in a subsequent workshop which looked at ways of fighting the stigma and discrimination related to HIV.
The majority of Romanians trust in the Church, particularly those in rural areas where the priest's authority exceeds that of the mayor, doctor or teacher. Young or old, from all walks of life, people across the country go to the priest for answers about spirituality and other issues. They also go to the priest to be heard.
Almost 10,000 people, who are infected with HIV or live with AIDS in Romania, particularly need answers and to be heard in a country where they are often pushed to the edge of society. For them, the priest's role is absolutely crucial.
In Constanta County a large group of HIV positive youth now want to get married and have their own families. Sixty-two babies were already born from HIV positive mothers.
"Without doubt, these persons in difficulty go to church for spiritual conciliation. The priest must have the accurate information about HIV and AIDS to be capable to solve his parishioners problems, not only from the religious point of view but also taking in consideration the medical prescriptions', explained Doctor Rodica Matusa who has worked with HIV positive children since 1985. The doctor, who took part in the workshop, believes that priests can change people's attitude towards the HIV phenomenon and combat stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV or AIDS.
Some of the priests from rural communities that took part in the workshop confessed to having limited knowledge about HIV or AIDS or what life is like for people living with the virus. A preliminary questionnaire revealed that all the priests didn't want to employ a nanny for their children without testing for HIV. 'Before this seminar, the nanny didn't have any chance. Now I see things differently and I will give her a fair chance', said Father Alexandru Alois from Buceag village.
'It is always interesting to work in teams. I was surprised to discover myself having a new vision, a new perspective about an old theme, to find a new way to deal with an old problem, in practice', shared Father Angel Ramboi.
A unanimous opinion was that 'all the inner fears can be overcome through education'. The priests understood that is important to be true priests and talk freely about HIV and AIDS, because the problem is real and won't disappear if they keep quiet. They also expressed the desire to receive informational materials about HIV and AIDS in order to inform people from their communities about HIV prevention in terms of abstinence and fidelity.
The priests also heard the story of a brave HIV positive young woman who answered their questions about her life, feelings, fears, treatment and future plans. Her optimism, courage and open mind were a lesson and an inspiration for the priests who left the seminary with a determination to be involved in the fight against HIV and its social impact.
But negative attitudes among the priesthood still prevail. Some refuse to address HIV because they don't want to talk about sex. Others refer to people living with HIV as 'SIDOSII'; an insulting and discriminatory word, but the Channels of Hope workshop in Constanta is a first step towards changing the way people think and talk about HIV and AIDS.
'We are leaving this workshop with the confidence that these leaders are now more sensitized to this complex problem and have proper tools to counsel an HIV affected/ infected person through conciliation, forgiveness and acceptance of their own destiny. Moreover, we hope that this network of priests will sustain our activity and combat stigma and bring more hope to their lives', said Raluca Bretea, coordinator of World Vision's 'Together for the Future' Project which supports 100 HIV positive youth.
'Church leaders, within the specifics of their mission, can have the best possible answer related to needs and solutions; messages like living life on faith values (abstinence before marriage, faithfulness, respect) are helping in prevention; counselling for those affected is feeding enormously the hope and the life quality; group counselling with community members and teenagers on issues like stigma and discrimination have as solution the love that God is giving and expecting us to share and promotion of justice is also an area where church leaders are the best advocates', concluded Venera Botescu, World Vision Romania's Gender and HIV projects coordinator.