By Farangis Najibullah, RFE/RL
Tajikistan has a new calling in mind for its Islamic
Health officials are placing their faith in imams'
ability -- and willingness -- to advise young Tajiks about topics like unsafe
At the request of health officials, mullahs are being asked to actively take
part in Tajikistan's campaign to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The clerics are asked to increase awareness of the diseases and their causes,
help eliminate stigmas associated with those afflicted with them, and even to
discuss methods of prevention -- including safe sex.
To prepare them for their new role, Tajikistan's Center for Mental Health And
HIV/AIDS plans to arrange awareness seminars specially designed for mullahs.
The effort is a welcome one for those who see the need for frank discussions
about sex in a conservative country where the topic is generally taboo, and who
see great potential in Tajikistan's religious leaders as messengers.
"Religious leaders, especially imams, are capable of discussing the topic with
people and giving them proper information about it," Manizha Haitova, who heads
the Center for Mental Health And HIV/AIDS, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service.
She says that many clerics enjoy high esteem and popularity, especially among
There are about 1,250 registered cases of HIV/AIDS in Tajikistan, but the
widespread view is that the real number is much higher.
The UN Development Program office in Dushanbe has warned that "HIV/AIDS cases
will surpass 60,000 in 2010, a daunting 1,200 percent increase from 2004." In
the northern Sughd Province alone, the number of HIV/AIDS cases is believed to
have increased by 30 percent since 2000.
During a recent conference in Dushanbe that brought together Central Asian
countries and Azerbaijan to discuss HIV/AIDS, Tajik Health Minister Nusratullo
Salimov downplayed the seriousness of the problem compared to other countries,
and touted the success Tajikistan has had in implementing new legislation and
At the same conference, the deputy speaker of Tajikistan's lower house of
parliament, Shujoat Hasanova, said migrant workers, prisoners, and intravenous
drug users were most prone to contract HIV/AIDS, and placed much of the blame on
the flow of drugs from neighboring Afghanistan.
Taking On Taboos
Specialists say a general lack of awareness, especially when it comes to sex, is
overlooked as a factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS. And that is where the great
potential is seen in Tajikistan's religious leaders, many of whom have been
appointed by the state.
Indeed, many Tajik imams take pride in having young people flock to their
sermons. In rural areas, clerics often enjoy the complete trust of their
community and their advice is closely followed.
While there is little room for maneuver when it comes to all things deemed
immoral, some are willing to accept that prostitution, drugs, and sex outside
marriage exist in Tajikistan, and that turning a blind eye won't help the
country's efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.
Abdurahim Nazarov, an imam for Dushanbe's Kazoqon Mosque, acknowledges the
necessity of religious leaders' involvement in the effort. Nazarov says he will
tell his followers not to stigmatize HIV/AIDS victims "because there are many
ways of getting the virus, such as tainted blood infusion."
The cleric points out that, out of fear of being stigmatized by society, many
people simply avoid undergoing blood tests.
"As long as this stigma and discrimination exists and as long as people do not
accept the fact that the disease has hit our society, no one would go to the
hospital for a medical check-up," Nazarov says.
Perhaps predictably, many religious leaders have strong reservations about
bringing up such topics in their mosque sermons.
An imam of one of Dushanbe's mosques, speaking to RFE/RL on the condition of
anonymity, says that as far as he was concerned, discussing preventative methods
when it comes to sex would mean approving sex outside marriage "as long as it is
performed with condoms."
"The other day, a TV reporter asked a young man in Dushanbe if he knew AIDS
prevention methods; the man responded, 'It can be prevented by using condoms,'"
the imam says. "This is an outright promotion of sin. Should we tell our youth,
'Do whatever thing you want to do -- just use condoms'? Promotion of sin is the
greatest sin of all."
Within the government, some officials have openly questioned the role of
religious leaders in the effort to combat HIV/AIDS -- the sentiment being that
they have played a major part in stigmatizing sufferers of the diseases in the
With or without them, however, the battle to combat HIV/AIDS in the country will
continue. Needle-exchange programs are on the rise, and the establishment of
centers offering free medication and consultation to the afflicted is
RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report
Copyright (c) 2008 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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