SCOPE holy water festival
People celebrating Filseta Lemariam (the Fasting of St. Mary), a holy water festival, where SCOPE supports HIV prevention outreach. Courtesy of SCOPE.
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By Kate Pfizenmaier, SCOPE Program Manager

Strengthening Care Opportunities through Partnership in Ethiopia (SCOPE), a program in the Department of Global Health, empowers religious leaders to be health advocates in their communities.  One way SCOPE does this is by encouraging Ethiopian priests to educate people at holy water sites on the importance of HIV testing, counseling, and treatment.

Holy water sites in Ethiopia are traditional places of healing.  People of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith, who make up 85% of the population in the Gondar region where SCOPE works, travel for miles or even days to seek the curative powers of holy water blessed by Orthodox priests. Visitors drink holy water and submerge themselves in pools to receive healing.

Those who visit these sites believe that holy water has curative powers and can heal any illness from HIV to depression or anxiety. 

Photo of priest in Ethiopia during a religious holiday
A priest in Ethiopia during a religious holiday at a holy water site where SCOPE supports HIV prevention education. Courtesy of SCOPE.
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This tradition offers a unique opportunity to reach populations that are typically difficult to access for health education and services. Even people from the most remote villages travel to holy water sites on the high holy days. SCOPE works with health workers and Orthodox priests at four traditional healing sites in Gondar to encourage holy water users to supplement holy water with modern medicine.  SCOPE is particularly focused on ensuring that people living with HIV are accessing the medication they need and encouraging people who don’t know their HIV status to be tested.  

Last month provided a great opportunity for thousands of people to be educated about HIV/AIDS when a religious holiday brought masses to holy water sites. Filseta Lemariam (the Fasting of St. Mary) is a high holy day where Ethiopian Orthodox Christians abstain from eating animal products and visit their place of worship.  In addition to educating large groups on this holy day, priests trained by the SCOPE program counseled their parishioners. Five people seeking healing at holy water sites were inspired by their priests to begin taking their HIV medication after discontinuing it in favor of traditional medicine.

Next month SCOPE plans to introduce voluntary HIV testing and counseling at these holy water sites. If HIV positive, parishioners will be referred for treatment; and if HIV negative, they will learn how they can prevent infection. 

SCOPE is a partnership between the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health, the University of Gondar, and members of faith communities in the United States and in Ethiopia.  Learn more.