Faith leaders across England in 'HIV healing' claims
Dangerous cases of faith leaders who tell people with HIV to stop taking their life-saving drugs have been identified by African-led community groups in a number of locations across England.
Seven groups said there were instances of people being told by faith leaders they had been "healed" through prayer - and then pressured to stop taking antiretroviral medication, according to the charity African Health Policy Network (AHPN).
Cases were reported to have taken place in Finsbury Park, Tottenham, and Woolwich, in London, as well as in Manchester, Leeds and at a number of churches across the North West.
Last year, BBC London identified three people with HIV who died after they stopped taking antiretroviral drugs on the advice of their Evangelical Christian pastors.
AHPN, which tackles health inequalities for Africans living in the UK, called on the government to do more to prevent faith leaders encouraging people with HIV to stop taking their drugs.
"The government, the department of health, and local authorities are not doing enough to respond to this," said Jacqueline Stevenson, AHPN's head of policy.
A Department of Health spokesman said: "Prayer is not a substitute for HIV treatment and we would be very concerned if people are not taking their medication on the advice of faith leaders."
AHPN said the cases reported to it by community groups showed:
- Most respondents were aware of more than one case of faith healing claims and pressure to stop taking medication. One member was aware of five cases
- Many followers believed the testimony of pastors who claimed they could heal them
- The majority of cases reported involved Evangelical or Pentecostal Christian pastors
- In some cases treatment has been restarted, in others the health and mental health of clients has declined.
Although community groups said they were aware of multiple cases, the members who reported being exposed to faith healers were unwilling to name the churches involved.
AHPN's Ms Stevenson said: "People were reluctant to name the churches and pastors."
Last year AHPN said it believed the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN), which has UK headquarters in Southwark, south London, may be one of those involved in such practices.
The church is headed by Pastor T B Joshua, who the Forbes richlist named as Nigeria's third richest clergyman.
SCOAN's website, which was set up in Lagos, Nigeria, now shows videos of people the church claims have been "cured" of HIV through prayer.
One video shows a woman Agnes Agnote visiting the church in Nigeria saying: "I am HIV positive. I went to the hospital and they confirmed it was HIV/Aids."
The video then shows Pastor Joshua blessing her, saying "everyone is healed".
It goes on to show Ms Agnote apparently showing a more recent medical report, with a narrator saying, "it clearly states that Agnes tested negative to HIV Aids".
Videos on the website also depict people being cured of "cancers" and "disabilities".
'Anointing sticker' tour
The church's British website now gives accounts of people reporting to be healed from conditions including arthritis and a lung blood clot after being a sprayed with "anointing water" by SCOAN in the UK.
It promotes a monthly "anointing water prayer line" in London "for any health issues" and advertises an "anointing sticker" tour of the UK and Ireland, which begins on Monday.
Last year, when asked by the BBC if it claimed its pastors could cure HIV, SCOAN responded: "We are not the healer. God is the healer. Never a sickness God cannot heal. Never a disease God cannot cure."
But it added: "We don't ask people to stop taking medication. Doctors treat - God heals."
Ms Stevenson warned: "Often faith groups and churches spring up and nobody really knows they are there or what they are doing."
"There needs to be investment in taking some action at national and local levels to address this issue."
She added that AHPN wanted to see faith groups and churches "having the same responsibility in terms of safeguarding and respecting individuals as any other organisation would be expected to have".
But AHPN warned that criminal sanctions would not be an appropriate solution and would risk "pushing the problem underground".
"We call for local authorities to work with faith groups and ensure these negative messages are not put out."
The Department of Communities and Local Government refused to respond to these comments.
But the Department of Health said faith organisations "can make a positive contribution to raising awareness of HIV" by "highlighting the benefits of testing and effective antiretroviral treatment".