• See also Testimony of Rev Engr. Isaiah Arinze – A Cleric of the Anglican Communion of Nigeria
  • See also Testamony of Evang. Chinedu Puis E
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Churches should not use mandatory HIV screening to stop intending couples

Rev. Ezra Batssa Yakubu is a pastor living openly with HIV as well as the National Co-ordinator of NINERELA+ (Association of Religious Leaders Living with and personally Affected by HIV and AIDS). In this interview with Fredrick Adegboye, he claims that stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS can be fought effectively from the pulpit, even as he speaks on other matters relating to the body

Could you please educate us on what NINERELA is all about?
NINERELA is Association of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS. It is a country network of ANARELA (African Network of Religious Leaders living with and personally affected by HIV and AIDS); which makes it a baby network of the international network – INERELA.

Don’t you think your objective of Christian and Moslem clerics “living openly” with their HIV status could be counterproductive for both religions?
HIV is not a moral issue. If it were, how can we explain a faithful woman whose husband goes out, gets infected and gives the virus to the wife, or the little child that is conceived and born with the virus, or the nurses that get infected through treating HIV positive clients? From those three examples, it can clearly be understood that HIV is not a moral issue. Even if the issue of sex is paramount in contracting HIV, does that make the person infected condemned eternally?

What is your view on mandatory HIV test for intending couples in some churches?
My view on this is that I support it if it has good intentions. Good intention in the sense of assisting the couple concerned and helping them forge a way forward, but not to hinder them from coming together as husband and wife if they choose to marry.

It is massively believed that stigma is the number one bane of HIV and AIDS, what in your own opinion is the best way to fight stigma effectively?
If stigma is going to be fought effectively, it will be from the pulpit. The voice of the cleric is likened to the voice of an angel. So, stigma can be fought from the pulpit because the cleric is the father of all.

What are the challenges the body is facing?
The challenges faced by NINERELA are many. First is lack of funding. Second is lack of capacity building of members, and lack of good structure for networking at all levels.

How do you operate?
We operate by encouraging our members to live openly and positively with HIV. And from the administrative point, we have the national secretariat that deals with zones; and the zones deal with the states, and vice versa.

There’s NINERELA, and we also hear of Interfaith Coalition and other such FBOs (faith-based organizations); wont this lead to duplication or interloping of roles?
Apart from NINERELA, all other organizations are run by people who are not living with the virus. A proverb says he who wears the shoes knows where it pinches, so, NINERELA is the faith-based organization that deals with people living with the virus and should take the lead in all interfaith affairs.

What is NINERELA’s strength?
Its strength can be seen from the national level where we have an office in Abuja. We have secretariat staff, zonal and state co-ordinators. We also organize capacity building for our members.

But you said earlier that your members lack capacity building, is that not a contradiction of sorts when you now say you organize capacity building for them?
The membership of NINERELA is above 900. And if we organize capacity building for 20 or 30, does that mean the whole members have their capacities built?

Do you receive support from churches and mosques, seeing that your programmes are targeted at the two instituitions?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the support we receive from ChristianAid are from foreign churches. But for local churches and mosques, we have not been receiving any support.

But have you reached out to them for support?
Yes, we have been reaching out to churches for support. We attended the last Anglican Clergy Retreat in Enugu where we made our position known. We have also reached out to some of the Pentecostal Clergy fora in Abuja. But instead of receiving support, they are looking forward to our sending support their way. So, that’s the Nigerian way of thinking. Some of these churches say they have HIV and AIDS programmes they are running in their denominations.

What about Traditional Religion?
The priests of traditional religion that are HIV positive are supposed to be part and parcel of NINERELA, but as of now we have not gotten a priest that come out openly to identify himself as a person living with HIV.

What do you think might be responsible for this?
The possible thing could be as a result of their number in society. It could also be that they have not gotten enough and correct information about NINERELA.

You claim to have more than 900 members. How many are pastors and imams out of this number?
NINERELA is not a Nigerian network of clerics, but a network of religious leaders. A religious leader could be anybody that has a leadership role in his faith-based community. He could be a choir master, a boys’ brigade captain, girls’ brigade captain or a women’s leader, and so on and so forth..

You are a pastor. Is your job as the national co-ordinator a full-time job?
Yes, it is a full-time job; but for a period of three years.

What is your call to religious leaders who still stigmatise their members who are infected with HIV?
If Jesus and Mohammed would have been here today, they would impress people living with HIV and AIDS. Therefore, I am calling on all religious leaders to emulate Jesus Christ and Mohammed by not stigmatizing people living with HIV and AIDS.

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