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Myanmar’s clergy find a voice on HIV

Maryknoll Sister Mary Grenough

Maryknoll Sister Mary Grenough

Updated: September 17, 2010 06:42 AM GMT
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Maryknoll Sister Mary Grenough
Maryknoll Sister Mary Grenough
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Myanmar’s bishops and priests are beginning to speak about HIV/AIDS in their homilies, a development American Maryknoll Sister Mary Grenough finds promising. For too long, people living with the condition, both Catholics and non-Catholics, have been reluctant to seek help as they fear discrimination, says the nun coordinates the Catholic HIV/AIDS networking group in Myanmar. In this commentary, Sister Grenough, who is in her 70s, talks about Church outreach to people with HIV/AIDS in the country and the challenges it faces. Five years ago, it was very difficult to get genuine interest and commitment from Church leaders to become involved in programs to prevent and provide care and support for people with AIDS, despite the fact that in the early 1990s, early awareness raising workshops were provided to the bishops and the leader of Karuna, the social arm of the Catholic Church. But by this year, it has become very obvious that the epidemic is reaching every diocese and affecting many families. Sadly, due to inadequate knowledge and very little available help, fear, stigma and discrimination have been the experience of most persons who are suffering from this disease. In fact until now, some parishes will not allow the body of a person who died from AIDS to be brought into the church for burial or even to be buried in consecrated ground. In early 2010, response was still very inadequate and stigma, discrimination, fears due to lack of understanding of the epidemic was painfully obvious. The awareness programs were for the most part limited to the usual churchgoers, not the high risk groups for HIV/AIDS. Yet in some dioceses, the underlying causes of the fast spread of the disease were rampant – poverty, very inadequate general education, almost no education on human sexuality, migration, intravenous drug use, and males and females resorting to “sex work” for survival or to attempt to improve their incomes. A breakthrough came when 10 persons from the Myanmar HIV/AIDS ministries were able to join the first Asia Pacific Catholic HIV/AIDS Network Meeting in Bangkok in May this year. As a result, Monsignor Robert Vitillo, head of the Caritas Internationalis delegation and special adviser on HIV/AIDS, came to Myanmar and gave workshops for bishops, priests, Religious, laypeople and interfaith groups from July 30 to Aug. 13. Karuna Myanmar Social Services (KMSS) started HIV/AIDS awareness programs in 2003. Pyay diocese’s program started in 2005 and is currently assisting more than 300 HIV-positive persons and is the only Church program actively working with sex workers on prevention, care and self help. Myitkyina diocese started providing educational assistance to students affected by HIV/AIDS and home visits in addition to peer education, life skills training and some self help projects. Banmaw diocese started its care program in 2009 and currently is working with 83 infected persons, 63 of whom are receiving anti-retroviral medicines. The Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition are presently serving in three programs (Kyaikkhame, Mon State) since 2003, Kalay (Sagaing Division) since 2007, and Loikaw, Kayah State, since 2009. The Religious of the Good Shepherd have started two programs: Tachileik, in northern Shan State, in 2005, and Yangon in 2009. The Missionary Sisters of St. Columban started home visits in 2004 and later expanded to offer a shelter and hospice program in Myitkyina, in Kachin State. Another program staffed by lay professionals under the Mandalay Archdiocese Health Commission started working with people living with HIV/AIDS in 2007. All of these programs interact with local and international NGOs and some with the government to access any available medicines, medical services and training. Stigma still prevails as is evident in the clientele of the above programs. All programs serve people regardless of religion or ethnic background. However, all report that very few Catholics will come to ask help from the programs run by dioceses or Religious in their own areas because they fear or have already experienced discrimination. In 2007 and 2008, the Sharing about Caring – of Myanmar Catholics involved in HIV/AIDS Ministries consultations were held in Yangon. The Caring Working team was formed in 2008. The bishops’ conference and Religious superiors were strongly requested to support urgently needed HIV/AIDS ministries in dioceses and parishes. Results have been most encouraging. Since the workshops, bishops and priests have begun to speak about HIV/AIDS in their homilies. To quote one bishop speaking to a group of thousands who had gathered for the celebration of Our Lady of Health on Sept. 8: “When you meet a person with AIDS we should not ask, ‘Who sinned?’ but as Jesus answered those who asked this question about a man born blind, we should reply, ‘Neither this man nor his parent have sinned. This happened so that God’s power might be shown in him.’” And by our respect, care and support for the person with AIDS, God’s power and love will be shown through us. Related reports Church needs to dispel HIV/AIDS misconceptions HIV sufferers bring hope to peers in Myanmar Sex talk ‘must not neglect HIV/AIDS’ MY11233.1619

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