International Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV has warned church leaders who manipulate congregants and act as if they are gods.

Speaking at a SafAIDS discussion forum on faith healing and AIDS and HIV treatment and prevention, Chiponda a Reverend at Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe (ELCZ) blamed some church leaders who force their members to stop taking medication saying it was a sign of little or no faith.

“We have leaders who pretend to be holier than thy and force their members to stop taking any medication especially anti-retroviral-therapy as they convince them that if they have faith they will be healed.

“This has posed a lot of challenges in HIV treatment as most of the ART patients who go to such churches have had complications after stopping treatment. We don’t want leaders who pretend to be gods, let’s understand the aspect of healing holistically in-line with biomedicine. Let’s give hope to members and don’t stop them from taking medication,” said Chiponda who is also a Reverend at Lutheran Church (ELCZ).

Other members who were at the discussion said leaders should also shun sermons that fuels stigma in the church especially associating HIV with prostitution: “Dzimwe nguva vafundisi unonzwa vachiiti mukaita chipfambi munorowa neshamu yaMwari mukabata chirwere, AIDS ishamu yamwari [At times you hear a pastor saying HIV is God’s punishment to those who have many sex partners.]

“Such messages fuels stigma and discrimination as people with HIV are believed to have been promiscuous of which it’s not true, you can be infected in marriages even when one partner has been faithful, so pastors should be careful with the way the package their message so that they don’t offend those living with HIV,” a former Johane Masowe member Margaret Cement said.

SafAIDS  head of communication Tariro Chikumbirike said the issue of faith healing was becoming a very worrying trend which has led to most members to default ART.

“We are concerned as Safaids about this issue of faith healing where members are convincing to stop taking their medication. This has caused a lot of challenges in HIV treatment and we want leaders to stop doing this and spread the correct message.

“Doctors are a gift from God and so we expect church leaders to spread the right message, some of these leaders seeking medical services nicodemusly yet they convince members to stop taking medication,” she said.

UNAIDS country co-ordinator Michael Bartos said the faith healing trend was common in some parts of Manicaland as women have to attend antenatal- care during the night as they fear that they will be seen by church leaders.

“It’s really worrying that we have women going to clinics during the night, we need more dialogue where church leaders are educated on HIV treatment so that these issues are taken seriously as there is need to stop the violation of women and children’s health rights,” he said.

He added that the country had a lot of ART success stories with incidences and HIV related deaths reducing hence the need for continuing the dialogue to increase on the gains