Monday, December 19, 2011

Thousands of Ethiopian AIDS patients risk their life by refusing medication in favour of "Holy Water"


Ian Woods, Sky correspondent
Thousands of Aids and HIV patients are risking their lives by refusing medication in favour of holy water, Sky News can reveal. The controversial treatment is offered by a church in Ethiopia which claims to have cured hundreds of believers. Sky News correspondent Ian Woods reports on the practice doctors in the country say is extremely dangerous.
"It was a scene which reminded me of the holocaust.
Naked men, women and children, some of them in chains to prevent them escaping, cower in front of the men in charge in a dimly-lit room in the church of St Mary on Mount Entoto.
These people fear death, but they believe that coming here will prolong their lives. It is more likely to have the opposite effect.
The church is 10,000ft above sea level, where the air is thin. Climbing this peak takes your breath away, and so does the view over the sprawling city of Addis Adaba below.
As we approached the church, we were told both boots and socks had to be removed. This is regarded as sacred ground, and everyone must go barefoot.
The church itself is more than 100 years old, a simple building painted in bright colours. It sits above a mountain stream, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes the stream is holy water with the power to cure HIV/Aids.
Every day, thousands of people with the virus come here to be "baptised", though the act is performed without ceremony and in a way which seems brutal to outsiders.
Plastic jerry cans are filled with water from a pool, and passed along a human chain to priests dressed like deep sea fishermen. The bright yellow waterproofs protect them from the drenching they administer to their congregation.
They hurl the water over the mass of people kneeling in front of them who shriek and scream, either through devotion or the simple shock of the cold water hitting their naked flesh.
Some cried out for the demons to leave their body, while priests hit them with wooden crosses. Many of them clutched their babies while the water was is shaken from the plastic containers. It is an extraordinary sight.
Men and women are separated by a flimsy barrier. The men must be completely naked while the women are allowed to wear panties. They run from the room with their arms across their breasts trying to maintain their modesty.
Afterwards they get dressed and move into another room for two hours of prayers, sermons, ritual and testimonies from those who claim that the holy water has cured them. Some people have been coming here for years in search of a miracle.
Gete Taddese is 27, and has been attending the church since 2004. She has already lost her two year old child to HIV.
Gete knows she still has the virus, but prefers to come here rather than a clinic.
The church claims that more than a thousand people have been cured in the past two years. And yet the head priest Father Geberemedhen admitted to me that only the newly diagnosed are likely to be helped.
"People who come here just after they discover they are HIV positive, before their bodies are damaged, are easier to cure."
Whether or not such devotion has any positive effect, it is likely to cost some people their lives. "We don't allow patients to take medication if they want to receive holy water", he told me. That means they must stop taking the antiretrovirals which prevent the disease taking hold, and prolong the life of those who carry the HIV virus.
At Addis Adaba's leading hospital, Dr Amone Wodoson understands why Orthodox Christians may seek help from their church, but is angry at the suggestion that they must choose between religion and science.
"This is something deep rooted in our culture, but patients should not discontinue medication while receiving holy water. There is no adverse interaction between the two. It's absolutely wrong. It's really devastating. If a patient discontinues his medication abruptly the disease will progress faster and the patient will die sooner."
Senior church figures tried to deny that patients were told to stop taking drugs. Kessis Kefyalew Merahi is a scholarly figure, who says that both medicine and faith have a role to play in treating AIDS. He insists that the holy water is a proven cure.
"Some of the patients are okay. They still have the sign of the virus, but the virus has no power on their body and blood because it is controlled by the grace of Our Lady."
But ancient superstition is woven into the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
There is a long list of rules on who is allowed access to St Mary's Church. Among those banned -- women with wigs because "demons possess such women". Women who are menstruating are also forbidden, along with anyone who has had sex recently. Anyone owning up to such behaviour must wait on a nearby hillside, where priests will come to them and douse them with water.
Here too we found men chained together. Some are forced to submit to the ritual by their friends or relatives. But the vast majority attend willingly. The desperate and the devout, risking their lives in the hope of a miracle.