The death of a 20-year-old congregation member in 2005 from HIV-AIDS remains deeply imprinted in the memory of Clasina Karma, a Protestant pastor in Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia's Papua province. The young man was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 15 and five years later was excommunicated by his family for his lifestyle choices and the heavy stigma attached to the disease in this part of the world, said Rev. Clasina, a pastor attached to the Evangelical Christian Church of Papua. "He was alienated by his family and sent to live alone. They told him he had been cursed by God," she told ucanews.com in Jakarta. Clasina led the funeral service for the man, whose name is being withheld out of courtesy for his family. "His experience was a turning point for me to start campaigning against this disease," said Clasina, a mother of five who manages to juggle the responsibilities of motherhood with her role as a sister to the sick and dying.
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She began visiting villages in remote areas, meeting people in local communities and holding gatherings with old and young alike — a routine she still follows day in and day out. "First I read everything I could get my hands on about HIV so I could fully understand it, then I went out and spread the word that this is something people need to be aware of, not just afraid of," she said. "I always say that if we don't raise our awareness about this, people in Papua will become extinct someday." Fifi, a Papuan girl who was 11 when this photo was taken in May 2015, contracted the AIDS virus from her mother. Here she is shown talking to Miguel, who was 10 and HIV-negative but whose mother was suffering from the disease, in Waena village of Papua province. (Photo by Romeo Gacad/AFP)
In the last five years she has teamed up with government officials to run a preventive program stressing the perils of certain high-risk lifestyles. Now her pulpit is the main channel she uses to teach people how to avoid contracting the disease and also how to best cope if it afflicts them or one of their loved ones, friends or colleagues. Her achievements were recorded in a documentary directed by Wenda Maria Imakulata Tokomodowir that was screened on July 24 at @america, the cultural center attached to the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. "She has chosen a path to safeguard the future of the people of Papua," Tokomowir said. HIV is one of many threats to social stability in a region rocked by a long-simmering independence movement among indigenous people from Papua, the filmmaker added. Alarming spike in numbers
Since the first case of HIV was recorded in Indonesia in 1987, the country now boasts the third-largest population of patients per capita in the Asia-Pacific after India and China, according to a report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS
). Papua province and its neighboring West Papua are now battling the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the country. Papua has a population of 3.6 million, 82 percent of whom are Christians. But while Indonesia has an official infection rate of 0.2 percent, that jumps tenfold in Papua, where at least 2.5% of the adult population and 3% of people aged 15-24 are HIV/AIDS patients. Clasina said there are various "triggers" explaining the disease's rapid spread in this enclave. However the main problem is that people who live promiscuous lifestyles do so with scant regard for the health and safety of themselves or their partners. "Many people have sex with someone other than their partner. Hence, they can easily transmit [HIV] to others," she said. The influx of commercial sex workers from other areas, notably Java and Sulawesi, coupled with a lack of systematic STD testing, has aggravated the situation, she said.
Reverend Clasina Karma of the Evangelical Christian Church in Papua, Indonesia has dedicated her life to helping local people infected with HIV. (Photo supplied)
A report by the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of Brisbane, Australia in 2016 confirmed the dangerous impact "infected sex workers" can have. Military personnel are another group responsible for "importing" the disease, it said. "Many people in Papua who have paid jobs get infected with HIV when they visit brothels and then spread the infection to their partners at home," the report stated
Campaigning for change
Clasina has been campaigning since 2013 to effect change through such means as promoting circumcisions using the non-surgical prepex method for adults, especially Christians, which is said to reduce transmission rates by up to 60 percent
. "This is a contentious issue for many Christians because they see it as an Islamic rather than a Christian tradition," she said. When people object, she points them to a passage in the Bible explaining that Jesus was circumcised. Statistics show that 2,000 Christian men in the region have now been circumcised. Constat Karma, secretary of the AIDS prevention unit under the provincial government, said the involvement of religious leaders like Clasina makes their job easier and produces better results. "People place more trust in religious leaders so we always encourage them to get involved," he said. A prophetic role
Clasina said she is just following the teachings of Christ as she roams the region. While she hasn't been imbued with the heavenly power to heal the sick, she can make their lives better and keep some of the uninfected safe. "I don't want to see more people get sick because of this disease," she said. "But for those who do, I want to be there for them. This is part of my responsibility as a shepherd tending to my flock." She said she hopes more religious leaders follow in her footsteps, regardless of their faith.