His faith inspires him, his training equips him, and his vision sustains him. Ehab El Kharrat, an Egyptian Presbyterian and psychiatrist, is a leader in transforming the attitudes of religious leaders in the Arab region toward people living with HIV and AIDS.

El Kharrat’s ground-breaking work with Muslim and Christian leaders in the Religious Leaders Initiative — sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) — was recognized at an awards ceremony in Geneva during the South-South Cooperation Forum this winter.

Ali Abdussalam Treki, president of the United Nations General Assembly, presented the South-South Leadership award to El Kharrat and Khadija Moalla, a lawyer and human rights activist who heads the project.

Since 2004, the focus of El Kharrat and Moalla’s work has been to change the attitudes of senior clergy in the Arab region towards people who are living with HIV and AIDS. Their message to imams, heads of Protestant denominations, and senior Catholic clerics is simple: “HIV is not a punishment of God. People living with it are our brothers and sisters.”

“We are saying this in the Arab region, which is thought of as conservative and less progressive,” El Kharrat said. “Seeing Moalla, an unveiled Muslim woman, working with a Christian man sends a message of its own.”

The end objective of the training for clergy is to lift the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS so that people will go for volunteer testing and counseling. Studies have shown that people are reluctant to be tested when they fear being excluded from their faith community based on the results.

Asked in a telephone interview with Reformed Communiqué how his faith has shaped his career, El Kharrat’s reply came quickly.

“My most cherished Reformed doctrine is about the Spirit of God at work in the world. God works profoundly to counter injustice. Most of our Lord’s time was spent with the marginalized and stigmatized. The emphasis of the World Communion of Reformed Churches on promoting a Christian understanding of justice is at the heart of the Christian message.”

El Kharrat said that initiatives such as promoting a kit for religious leaders about HIV and AIDS and leading workshops throughout the region where senior religious leaders meet people living with HIV are prompting radical changes in clergy attitudes.

“I have seen an imam go from preaching blood and thunder condemnation of people with AIDS on the first day of a workshop to dissolving into tears two days later after hearing from a woman who became infected when she had no choice but to become a sex worker after her husband died. Society offered her, as a woman, no other way of supporting herself,” said El Kharrat.

“After listening to her story the imam told her, ‘My lady, I want to ask you to forgive us for letting society do this to you.’”

These changes in perception have led to dramatic changes in public discourse about those living with HIV and AIDS and are directly linked to a significant increase in the numbers of people seeking testing and counseling. In Morocco, the numbers have increased eightfold; in Yemen, the increase is 18 fold.

El Kharrat began his pioneering work in a project he initiated in his home church, Kasr El Doubarah Evangelical Church (Presbyterian) in Cairo, where he has been an elder since 1983. The parish is the largest Protestant congregation in the Arab region, with 6,000 worshipers.

The program, “Freedom Drugs and HIV Program,” is based on El Kharrat’s experiences with drug users while serving as the congregation’s youth worker in the late 1980’s — an approach he describes as a combination of psychotherapy and Christian discipleship practices. 

“God used me among the youth of my country.  I could see God among the heroin users,” he said.

The program has grown to include 15 drug rehabilitation centers with 440 beds for treatment as well as a large HIV prevention program among youth. The congregation provides core leadership to the project. Project beneficiaries include both Muslims and Christians.

The model pioneered by the congregation attracted the attention of the Egyptian government, and the church was encouraged to expand its work with drug users. It is now the largest drug outreach program in the Middle East.