A blend of science and faith has been tried by Yonas Tadesse for the past three years to stave the effects of HIV. He takes anti-retroviral medicine and drinks a liter of holy water, blessed by a priest.
The combination has long been a source of controversy in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where many local leaders believe patients should not take both holy water and medicine. But on Wednesday, Ethiopia's top religious official gave the treatment his blessing in a country where an estimated 1.5 million people are infected with HIV.
"I am asking each and every one of them to swallow the medicine and the holy water together," Patriarch Abune Paulos told a crowd of about 250 worshippers at Addis Ababa's Entoto Mariam church. "They never conflict each other."
Although the patriarch issued a proclamation in November allowing holy water to be used in conjunction with AIDS medications, many local Orthodox priests have continued to tell patients they would have to choose between the two.
Yonas, 41, who was in the congregation Wednesday, said he was pleased to know his preferred treatment was acceptable.
"I feel better now. Before, they forbade me to take the medicine," he said of his priests. "Now they welcome it."
Donald Y. Yamamoto, the U.S. ambassador in Addis Ababa, said spiritual healing is often as important as medicine in Ethiopia, where about half the population is Orthodox Christian.
"It's an issue of faith and religion, where religion and science come together to support each other," he said.
About half of the 140 patients who take anti-retrovirals at St. Petros Hospital in Addis Ababa also drink holy water - sometimes up to 4 liters (a gallon) per day, said Dr. Solomon Zewdu.
"There's no study out there that says it is working, but we don't want to discredit faith-based healing," he said. "All medicine should be allowed to be taken with holy water."
A patient at St. Petros, a frail 14-year-old orphan, said he was glad he was not sinning by taking medicine along with his holy water. "After I began taking the medicine," he said with a wide smile, "I'm becoming OK."
When he arrived the hospital, he weighed 20 kilograms (45 pounds) and was on the verge of death. After a few months of treatment, he is up to 28 kilograms (60 pounds) and will return to school.
The boy's caretaker asked that he not be identified because of the stigma attached to HIV.
Another patient, a woman who also did not want to give her name, pointed to another benefit.
"Now I have hope," she said, "in the holy water as well as in the medicine."
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