Last week’s United Nations “Barcelona
Report” on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic is devastating in its portrayal
of the crisis that has engulfed sub-Saharan Africa, where a dozen countries
have an adult (those aged 15 to 49) infection rate of more than 10%.
The report doesn’t have much to say about
the role of religion, which is possibly just as well for those of us who are
Christians. For the question needs to be asked: What has Christianity been
doing as this crisis developed?
Using the Operation World
Christian handbook, I have taken rates of religious adherence for each
African country and placed them next to the adult HIV/AIDS rates from the
Barcelona Report. What a depressing exercise.
Here are the 10 most Christian countries
in Africa (according to Operation World) and their adult HIV/AIDS
Christians (%) HIV/AIDS rate (%)
Congo (Dem. Rep.)
Guinea 95.1 3.4
But where the figures get really
depressing (for an evangelical Christian) is when you realise that in
general the HIV/AIDS rate is highest in those countries where Protestants
and other non-Catholic Christians predominate.
Here are the 20 most non-Catholic
Christian countries in Africa and their adult HIV/AIDS infection rate:
Non-Catholic Christians (%) HIV/AIDS rate (%)
Rep. 51.7 12.9
Congo (Dem. Rep.)
If you are not already sufficiently
depressed, look at a table for the 10 most Muslim countries in Africa:
Muslims (%) HIV/AIDS rate (%)
In church we are told that one of the
reasons we should support Christian missionary activity in Africa is to stop
the spread of Islam. In the words of Operation World: “African
Christians as well as mission agencies need to make Muslims a priority for
demonstrations of the love of Christ and culturally sensitive approaches
must be developed for planting churches among them.”
Yet as AIDS rips at the heart of the
continent - devastating families, gutting townships, wrecking national
economies, creating millions of orphans - it looks to be Islamic culture
that has solutions of a sort.
Nicholas Kristof wrote a
nasty article in the New York Times on Tuesday, blaming
“conservative Christian pastors” particularly, for contributing to hate
speech about Islam in the US. (He even managed to find two such pastors, one
of them quite well-known.)
But he also wrote this:
Islam already has 1.3 billion adherents and is spreading rapidly,
particularly in Africa, partly because it also has admirable qualities that
anyone who has lived in the Muslim world observes: a profound egalitarianism
and a lack of hierarchy that confer dignity and self-respect among
believers; greater hospitality than in other societies; an institutionalized
system of charity, zakat, to provide for the poor. Many West
Africans, for example, see Christianity as corrupt and hierarchical and
flock to Islam, which they view as democratic and inclusive.
On no young woman would I wish genital
mutilation, minimal education, a life behind a veil and a husband with
several wives. But what if the alternative were a husband who contracts
HIV/AIDS from frequent visits to cheap prostitutes, giving his wife a
painful death at age 30 and leaving behind six young children?
I simply don’t have answers. I’m no
expert on HIV/AIDS or on Africa. I’m just an ordinary guy sitting in front
of a computer, playing with figures on a spreadsheet. I’m sure it’s all a
heck of a lot more complicated than the numbers suggest.
Yet I believe we Christians are called to
be accountable for our actions, individually and as a church. And so I
cannot help wondering if Christian leaders in Africa and their supporters in
the West are not responsible in some measure for the crisis over there.
Two months ago I wrote a
commentary about Papua New Guinea. I noted that it is, according to the
Operation World handbook, the fourth-most Christian large country on
earth (97.3% of the population are said to be Christian), yet it is facing
an Africa-style AIDS crisis. My sarcastic conclusion then is perhaps also
What on earth are church leaders teaching their 97.3% flock (or is the
problem all the fault of the other 2.7%)? What messages are the missionaries
bringing? Should I be directing my tithes elsewhere? Or should I just sit
back content in the knowledge that so many are going to heaven?
As a result of many responses, I posted a follow-up item the next day:
HIV/AIDS in Africa
Thank you for the response to my
commentary yesterday, “HIV/AIDS and Christians in Africa”, in which I noted
that the African countries with the highest HIV/AIDS rates seemed to be
those that also had the most Christians (and, in particular, the most
Jerry B. emailed a considerable amount of
information about the unreliability of HIV/AIDS reporting in Africa, and
provided a link to a
detailed article from Rolling Stone magazine, “AIDS in Africa –
In Search of the Truth”.
Over the years I’ve seen a lot of charts
co-relating AIDS incidence with everything from language to circumcision
Roth also notes that Islamic areas tend to
have lower rates. This may well be true (among other things, the widespread
Muslim custom of washing before and after sex may help). On the other hand,
they may have lower reporting rates, for reason of stigma. (This may
be true of the Catholic Christian areas, too.)
Why AIDS has spread so extensively in
Africa, and why rates are so different in different parts of Africa, remains
a mystery. Religion might be the explanation, but there are a lot of other
The incidence…is more likely to be
related to famine than to religion. The highest rates are in those countries
whose populations are starving….None of the Muslim countries make the list.
Famine is always followed by pestilence. The body can’t fend off infection
when it’s emaciated, even when given drugs to help. That’s why the solution
to AIDS and other diseases in places like Africa is not likely to be found
in just throwing money and drugs at them.
Ted Esler provided a link to the
Mission Review website, which gives access to a huge amount of material
detailing the many positive initiatives being undertaken by mission
organisations to combat the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.
And Nathan M. wrote:
In presenting the Gospel anywhere in the world, we have to figure out how to
better present the “go and sin no more” aspects of it. There needs to be
grace, but there needs to be change as well. Those looking for a high count
of those saved will emphasize the first. Those looking to control…will try
and force the second…. Christianity can and must hold both in balance. We
needn’t wait to get our house perfectly in order before spreading the Gospel
(we won't be there until we reach Heaven), but that doesn't excuse our own
lack of seriousness towards God's demands.
I should say that my article was to some
degree intended to be thought-provoking. I was always dubious about the
accuracy of HIV/AIDS reporting.
I also wonder about the claims that
certain African countries are highly Christian. The Operation World
handbook does an excellent job in standardising and presenting global
statistics from a myriad of sources. But many of these statistics are, to
put it mildly, of dubious reliability, for a variety of reasons.
Take my own country Australia. It is said
to be 67.5% Christian (based on census data), despite being a hugely secular
and materialistic place, with a strong anti-Christian strain prominent in
the media and throughout some other institutions. Church attendance is low,
and I’d hardly call us a Christian country at all.
But let’s end on a note of optimism. The
African country with the largest number of evangelical Christians is Uganda.
According to Operation World, more than 40% of the population are
evangelical Christians, one of the highest rates in the world. Uganda also
has a low (for Africa) adult HIV/AIDS rate of just 5%.
According to Operation World:
Uganda is the first country in the world
with a massive AIDS problem to…reduce the numbers of the afflicted, from
possibly 25% in 1992…. Both government and churches faced up to the terrible
calamity and have successfully worked to achieve this reduction.
Praise the Lord.
July 12th, 2002