Tajikistan has a new calling in mind for its Islamic clerics.
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. 'Proper Information'
"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 young Tajiks.
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 other programs.
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.
Dushanbe's central mosque
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 first place.
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 increasing.RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report