Published: Friday, 15 May 2015 18:27
Culled from AlJazerra– FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — In a dimly lit church on a spring morning, the Rev. Christiana Sutton-Koroma cites the Bible’s book of Numbers — in which it says people should not have contact with corpses that could infect themselves and others — as an argument to dispense with traditional burial practices that can spread Ebola.
She and other faith leaders, both Christian and Muslim, have turned to religion to help educate people in Sierra Leone, where the virus is abating but could still be simmering.
For Kadiatu Bah Lopez, hearing sermons like these may have meant the difference between life and death for her 23-year-old nephew Amadu. It was only after her pastor started to talk about Ebola that she knew to get Amadu, who was sick, the help he needed fast.
“I thought Ebola was not real. I thought they were just injecting people with the virus to kill us,” she said. “But through the church and listening to the advice they were giving, I realized Ebola was real.”
Distrust of medical workers and the government led people, especially at the start of the outbreak that began almost a year ago, to hide sick family members at home. The value of faith leaders in a country that is very religious — and tolerant of other religions — was quickly recognized, and nongovernmental organizations and the government began encouraging churches and mosques to preach preventive measures.
The Freetown-based NGO Focus 1000, a partner with Sierra Leone’s Social Mobilization Action Consortium, which consists of various agencies working with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to get to zero Ebola cases, came up with the idea.
In the late summer, Focus 1000 brought together the Islamic Action Group and Christian Action Group to brainstorm ways to use the Quran and the Bible to educate people about Ebola.
Mixed-faith families are common in Sierra Leone. When Amadu contracted Ebola, Lopez prayed for him at her church, and his fellow Muslim friends prayed for his recovery at their mosque.
He survived the virus, which has killed more than 11,000 people across West Africa. He believes people praying for him helped, no matter their religion.
“We are all serving one God, at the end of the day,” he said. “We are all doing service for the same God. We are unified. Religion doesn’t matter.”
Ramadan Jalloh, the chief imam of the Jam’iyatul Haq Mosque in the eastern part of Freetown, which has held Ebola prevention talks, said stories such as Amadu’s show that “Sierra Leone has a clear understanding of what religion really is — that religion is not there to create problems between people but instead to bring people together.”
He explained that this trust and religious tolerance in Sierra Leone, which is about 78 percent Muslim and 21 percent Christian, enabled faith leaders to help stem the spread of Ebola.
Mohamed Bailor Jalloh, the CEO of Focus 1000, said many religious leaders died in the outbreak because of misinformation and distrust of government advice. “They were touching, praying and washing dead bodies, but when we got them engaged, it stopped completely,” he said.
At Jam’iyatul Haq, Jalloh, who is the head of the Islamic Action Group, gives advice on Ebola prevention by using examples from the Quran.
For a long time persuading people even to wash their hands regularly to help stop the spread of the virus was challenging, he said. “Islam recognizes hand washing is a basic thing that may help as a way to prevent spread of diseases,” he said. “The prophet of Islam advises us to wash hands every day.”
He said there are examples in the Quran of bodies that were not washed, such as those of Muslims who were killed in battle and were buried with the clothes they died in.
Aysha Sesay, a member of the mosque, said that many attendees take the advice to heart when they hear it from a trusted source. “When we go to the mosque and we get these lectures, we then take them out to spread them to our children, to our families, and that has helped us in preventing Ebola,” she said.
The international NGO World Vision is doing similar work with faith leaders across the country and is even having imams preach Ebola awareness in churches and pastors preach in mosques.
“It was not just for a showpiece but to show the seriousness of Ebola, to show Ebola has no religious face,” said Leslie Scott, the Sierra Leone director of World Vision. “Ebola comes for anyone, whether Muslim or Christian, so it was every important for a Christian to tell a Muslim about Ebola and for a Muslim to tell a Christian about Ebola.”
In the week leading up to May 13 Sierra Leone saw no new Ebola infections for the first time since the outbreak started, and Liberia declared itself Ebola-free on Saturday. But that doesn’t mean people should relax yet, warned Sutton.
“I want to encourage people not to relent. Don’t get tired. Don’t get fed up,” she said. “We will not be OK until it has ended, and we need to get it out so it does not become endemic.”