December 14, 2013

​Kenya: Pentecostal Pastors Push Prayer, Not Drugs, for HIV Patients


©2013 Religion News Service

At prayer healing services in some
Pentecostal churches, pastors invite people infected with HIV to come forward
for a public healing, after which they burn the person’s anti-retroviral
medications and declare the person cured.

The “cure” is not free, and some people
say they shell out their life savings to receive a miracle blessing and quit
taking the drugs.

“I believe people can be healed of all
kinds of sickness, including HIV, through prayers,” said Pastor Joseph Maina of
Agmo Prayer Mountain, a Pentecostal church on the outskirts of Nairobi. “We
usually guide them. We don’t ask for money, but we ask them to leave some seed
money that they please.”

But the controversial ceremonies are
raising red flags as believers’ conditions worsen, and a debate has opened over
whether science or religion should take the lead in the fight against the AIDS

The issue is not new for African
societies that have grappled with similar matters, such as whether condoms can
prevent transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

Some 6.3 million people are receiving
anti-retroviral drugs in hospitals and clinics across eastern and southern
Africa. The prayer healings are especially worrisome because people who quit
treatment may become resistant to the drugs.

“We (clergy) must demonstrate leadership
in this area,” said Jane Ng’ang’a, who coordinates the Kenya chapter of
INERELA+, an interfaith network of religious leaders living with HIV. “We
should be in the forefront, encouraging adherence to the medicines, as we offer
psychological and mental support to those infected and affected.”

Officials with INERELA+, an international
organization, said that in Nairobi alone, an average of 10 people a month fall
victim to such pastors. Countrywide, the organization has recorded 2,000 such
cases. When their health worsens, people seek help restarting the medicines.

Margaret Lavonga attended a healing
prayer service several years ago. She said she paid money for a prayer cure and
nearly ended up dead after the pastor told her and others to stop taking their

“We were very desperate after realizing
we had been infected as young women,” she said.

At the church, she was asked to pay the
equivalent of $12 to be accepted for the healing ceremony and $24 at the end of
the ceremony. The pastor then confiscated her drugs and those of four others
and set them ablaze. The group was asked to undergo a test at a certain clinic
in Nairobi, where they were all declared cured.

“We had joined him for crusades around
Nairobi slums, telling the people how wonderful the pastor’s miracles were,”
she added. “I was upbeat, but after two weeks I started falling sick. When I
was tested, the virus was still in me and had multiplied since I was not taking
the drugs.”

Four of those who had received the
alleged prayer cure died within a month, according to Lavonga, who remains
bitter that the government has not taken any action to stop the practice.

“The pastors should be in jail,” she

Roserita Nyawera, another victim in
western Kenya, said the desperation among people living with HIV and their fear
of stigma and family rejection make it easy for them to accept offers for a

“When you are told there is an easier
option, you want them (drugs) out of your life,” said Nyawera.

In Uganda, Gabriel Amori, coordinator of
that country’s INERELA+ chapter, said Pentecostal church pastors often tell people
that a lack of faith is the reason the prayer healing isn’t working.

“The patients do not actually get
healed, but they try to believe they are to prove they have faith, even if
there is no clinical proof,” he said.

The Rev. Adama Faye of the Lutheran
Church in Senegal said prayers for miracle healing inflict serious damage not
only on those who are victimized.

“We are concerned it is negating
achievements against HIV and AIDS,” he said. “Governments should also keep
close watch on those pastors who cheat people through the miracles.”