Shivering under a
tattered blanket, a young woman tries to sleep at the
foot of mist-enshrouded Mount Entoto north of the Ethiopian
capital, Addis Ababa. Nearby, a mother and child
huddle together in the early-morning cold.
"I decided to
come to Entoto to seek a cure from the holy water after
a doctor told me that I am HIV-positive," Abebech Alemu, 35,
said. "I am a follower of the Orthodox faith. I
strongly believe that I will be cured by drinking the
holy water rather than drugs."
Ethiopia is one
of the countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, with
more than 1.5 million people, including 100,000 children,
living with the HIV virus.
The World Health
Organization says the epidemic was previously an urban
problem, but the virus has started to spread to rural areas
where an estimated 85% of the country's 75 million
most remote corners, awareness of health and medical issues
is very low, and many in isolated communities believe HIV
infection is akin to a plague or curse from God.
Abebech is among
thousands of Ethiopians who trek from far-flung parts of
the Horn of Africa nation to what they believe are holy
springs in search of cures for diseases. Many
hope to rid themselves of HIV/AIDS.
At the site of
the holy spring on Entoto near St. Mary 's Church -- built
by Emperor Menelik II at the end of the 19th century -- a
priest holding a large wooden cross stands on high
naked and trembling patients line up to be immersed in the
water and blessed by the priest. Each patient carries away
about five liters of the water, which they drink every
day believing it will cure their ailments.
Monks have built
awnings made of sticks and straw around St. Mary's
Church to shelter the wealthier visitors, but most live in
the open, surviving by begging.
"I know about the
free distribution of HIV medicine, but I have decided
not to take it. I am convinced I could be cured by the holy
water," Abebech said.
Bahetawi Gebremedhin Demise said he came to Entoto 10 years
ago after God told him in a dream to go to the deep ravine
under the mountain where a holy spring would cure the
"Once they feel
better, I send them back to the hospital where they
were declared HIV-positive. They come back with a negative
certificate," he said.
Gebremedhin said 1,390 HIV-positive people had been cured in
the past year alone, according to his records. He said
the spring had healed more than 500,000 people,
including many foreigners, suffering from different
"This is a place
of God where all those who believe in the Almighty are
being cured. People from all walks of life who seek God's
mercy come to us, and we try and help everyone
irrespective of their creed, religion, or
nationality," he said.
But Dr. Solomon
Zewdu, administrator of Johns Hopkins University HIV/AIDS
Drugs Distribution Center in Addis Ababa, said he had
appealed to the Orthodox patriarch to tell
HIV-positive people that they can take antretroviral
drugs along with the water.
"HIV drugs are
life-saving. Those who are drinking the holy water can
also take the drugs. I do not see any contradiction," he
said, adding he had seen patients abandoning their
hospital beds and antiretroviral regimes and
instead opting for holy water.
people in Ethiopia are receiving antiretroviral treatment,
according to the WHO. In many developing countries,
lifesaving drugs are either unavailable or too
expensive for millions living with the virus.
by the devil come in chains, others on a wheelchair or
on the backs of men; still others who lost their eyesight
are led here by friends," Bahetawi Gebremedhin said.
"After a few
weeks of intense prayer and religious rites, they are
baptized with the holy water and they get cured." (Reuters)