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Pakistan declares jihad on Aids

PAKISTAN

A new campaign by Pakistan's government is calling on teachers in religious schools to declare "a jihad against HIVAids".

A handbook distributed last week by the National Aids Control Programme told Islamic leaders, including those who run the country's madrassas, that it was their religious duty to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

Pakistan is classified by the United Nations as a "low prevalence, but high risk" nation for HIV. While an epidemic has not yet hit the country, experts agree it could be around the corner if social taboos are not tackled.

The government hopes that these highly respected moral teachers will set an example by casting aside their own discomfort in order to carry out the Islamic obligation to help the sick and prevent disease, however difficult.

Mullahs are also in a good position to disseminate information to Pakistan's rural population. Many areas have no government school or health service, but there is invariably a mosque in each village.

Convincing the madrassas to change their curriculum is no easy task, however. The majority of Pakistan's estimated 20,000 seminaries provide little other than recitation of the Holy Koran and basic literacy.

Even in the most conservative areas, however, a few religious tutors are leading the way. Maulana Abdul Mateen is a mullah who has been teaching HIVAids education for the past eight years in Baluchistan, a south-western province.

Mr Mateen is convinced that Islamic teachers and Aids campaigners should collaborate because both are dedicated to working for good health. However, on the subject of safe sex, he preaches only monogamy and abstinence. "If a person is actually suffering from HIV or Aids, we recommend he uses a condom to save his wife," he said. "But, please don't tell people that Maulana Mateen has given permission to use condoms without conditions," he added quickly.

For many, an HIVAids campaign without condoms would be unthinkable. But Mr Mateen has nonetheless educated 200,000 religious students in 350 schools about other methods of prevention and promotes tolerance for HIV-positive people. In this extremely conservative environment, he has opened an important new front in the war against Aids.

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