Abune Paulos is the Patriarch of Ethiopia’s 30 million-strong Orthodox Church. He tells IRIN of the church' s attitude towards HIV/AIDS and how it is dealing with the pandemic.
QUESTION: What is the HIV/AIDS situation in this country?
ANSWER: It is a tragic situation and we have to deal with it. We have to make our people aware and to recognise this virus because it would be immoral not to do something about it. It is our responsibility, our responsibility to take care of our brothers and sisters.
Q: What is the Orthodox Church doing?
A: We have a manpower of 500,000 clergy. These people live among the congregation, be it during wartime, peacetime or during drought. But while they are there suffering the consequences that society is facing, they still continue to function as a free service of being a pastor, giving advice, baptising children and taking care of other activities, like matrimonial and burial services. We have another 400,000 Sunday School young people who are following the teaching, and who are dedicated to this. So we have a programme that deals with adults that involves clergy, and young people.
Q: How are you addressing stigma?
A: We are doing things in accordance with our ability, our capacity. So we have started some programmes in consultation with experts, others with our own continuous moral support and moral teaching, because we have been teaching throughout this long history. Those who have, must share with those who don’t have. Those who are oppressed should be freed, and those who oppress them should be merciful.
Q: You call for behavioural change. Can you be more specific?
A: The change of behaviour is one of the key things to deal with, especially with this AIDS problem because it is of a personal choice. Some people choose to drink, some people choose to lust, whatever the bad things we see. If they have a moral sense, if they base their behaviour on a moral, on a rule, on a spiritual regulation, then they have a limitation and they cannot do such things. They cannot starve their children by going and playing games and drinking while the children have very little to eat. It is up to the people to listen. If people don’t listen, don’t blame me. I am just a preacher.
Q: Would you advocate the use of condoms?
A: No. I have one choice only. From childhood until adolescence, when they are ready to get married, everyone stays sanctified, virginal, disciplined. Then after that when the parents, the church, the society decide that these people meet together and form a family, then it is until death, and then they part.
Q: Do you disagree with the UN which does advocate using condoms?
A: I only teach my own way. I would not like to be an obstacle to anyone.
Q: Do you think a behavioural change is feasible and will work?
A: Yes, if people are believers they believe... If you have faith, you have a moral obligation. You owe to God, to the God in whom you believe, to listen and obey him. The disorder on earth came because of disobedience. The first man and woman disobeyed God, and after that everything was upside down.
Q: What would you do if you found a priest in your Church was HIV positive?
A: First of all we would sympathise and we would be ready to help him, to assist him, but he would be relieved of his post and offices because he has been out of line. So he would be relieved and taken care of and the congregation will be told, will be instructed, will be orientated. I would treat him like any other one. I am against stigma and discrimination.
Q: What is your response to criticism that the church advocates using Holy Water to treat AIDS?
A: It is not the church which advocates that Holy Water is a medicine so you have to come and drink Holy Water and forget anything else. No, it is the victim who has come believing and drunk the Holy Water and went back to the doctor and found himself to be clean - he is the one proclaiming this. It is not the church which is asking people to drink Holy Water. The church’s teaching is to believe in God, to follow the rule of God and to trust in God - so that God could cure them. That is not a sin.
But I am not advocating - come and drink the Holy Water and do it for ten times a week and then you will be healed. Never. But I do believe that the one who truly believes gets healed, because that is a scriptural teaching.