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Kyrgyzstan: Muslim Clerics Help Raise HIV/AIDS Awareness

Kyrgyz organizations are increasingly joining forces to achieve progress in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Earlier this year, the Kyrgyz Football Federation began an HIV/AIDS and drug-abuse prevention campaign among thousands of young soccer players. RFE/RL reports on another unique campaign against HIV/AIDS in the republic, this time involving local Muslim clergy.

Prague, 29 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Kyrgyzstan, the State Commission on Religious Affairs, and local Muslim clergy have launched a unique campaign that aims to inform religious leaders about HIV/AIDS.

Kyrgyzstan's first deputy mufti Lugmar aji Guahunov told RFE/RL that Muslim clerics have a role to play in tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"I want to say that Islam is a religion of kindness [and] neatness," Guahunov said. "It fights for a healthy way of life. In my opinion, it is normal that imams talk about AIDS because we do it within the framework of Shari'a law. Also I would say that it is not the problem of one person [or] doctors. It is the problem of [the whole] society -- everyone."

The campaign uses workshops to educate religious authorities about HIV/AIDS and how it spreads. The clerics then incorporate what they have learned into their teachings.

Twenty-two-year old Temirbek uulu Baktybek studies at the Kyrgyz National University in the capital Bishkek. He told RFE/RL that young people listen carefully to imams talking about AIDS.

"I think Muslim clerics' work to inform the youth about HIV/AIDS is great because a lot of young people come to the mosque, and for them clerics are persons of authority," Baktybek said. "They are listened to attentively. I think imams do useful and proper work. As for me, when the clerics told me about this disease I listened with great interest and attention."

Ekaterina Paniklova is a program manager for UNDP in Kyrgyzstan. She said that religious leaders have a role to play in warning against dangerous behavior that can cause HIV/AIDS to spread -- such as having unprotected sex or using intravenous drugs. And they can encourage people to have positive attitudes toward people who have HIV/AIDS or who are at highest risk of contracting the disease. These include sex workers and drug users.

"This is part of a multisector approach to the HIV/AIDS problem," Paniklova said. "All sectors of the society have a responsibility [for fighting the] HIV/AIDS epidemic threat. Sixty percent of the Kyrgyz population is rural. And Islamic leaders have a great influence. They're like opinion-makers."

However, not all religious leaders have embraced the campaign. These include the more conservative imams and some members of the older generations.

"The problem of AIDS is happening all over the world," said 54-year-old Nazaraly kyzy Saadat. "It's right for young people, woman and men, who have some problems with HIV/AIDS to go to health services -- but not to Muslim clerics. Doctors know about this disease more than imams. In my opinion, it is not right when clerics talk about AIDS. I don't support this idea."

There has been a steep rise in the number of HIV infections in Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, 470 new infections were reported last year, but the real figure is believed to be much times higher. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Those infected are mostly young, male, intravenous-drug users, as the flow of Afghan-produced heroin continues to be trafficked through the region to Russia and Europe.

But Dmitri Usenko, the national coordinator for the nongovernmental organization Reproductive Health Alliance of Kyrgyzstan, said the disease is also spreading to the wider population via sex.

"The percentage of heterosexually transmitted new cases is increasing year by year," Usenko said. "In the general population the most vulnerable [are] the young people because of unsafe sex practices. It's very important to talk to our youth about safe sex [and] to promote [the use of] condoms, clean needles, and so on."

Usenko stressed that the spread of HIV can only be stopped with the cooperation of all actors of society.

"We have [achieved] very great progress," Usenko said. "We involve the football federation [and] religious leaders. [But] we must involve other groups of people in this process. We have good results in prevention of the epidemic, but we can [achieve] more if we involve private businesses, national leaders, [and community] leaders."

(Meerim Sultangazy from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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