Mohammad Azeem leads prayers every Friday at his local mosque in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi, but one week his sermon contained a shock for the deeply conservative congregation.
Azeem had been tasked with educating his flock about the dangers of AIDS, long a taboo subject in this Islamic country.
Advertisement"Breaking that barrier sent shock waves through the community," said Azeem, who admitted he saw sufferers as sinners against Allah until he was invited to a meeting organised by Pakistan's National AIDS Control Programme (NACP).
"What impressed me most about the programme - and transformed my view of the disease and its victims - was that it was aimed at saving lives," said the 36-year-old prayer leader.
"That inspired me to play an active role in the awareness campaign."
The meeting was part of a progressive government scheme to educate religious leaders in Pakistan about the dangers of HIV and encourage them to take the AIDS prevention message to their communities.
Officially only 5,000 people in Pakistan have the virus, but the NACP puts the real number of victims at between 70,000 and 80,000.
It estimates 0.1 percent of the population is infected, but says the disease is spreading among high-risk groups, especially drug users, who mostly inject and often use dirty needles.
"We started the programme because the religious leaders are widely respected and people listen to what they say," said NACP programme manager Hasan Abbas Zaheer.
Zaheer said almost all those who attended the meetings were open to the idea of preaching to their congregations on issues outside religion because they viewed Islam as a way of life.
But it was more difficult to persuade them that AIDS was a problem in Pakistan -- they initially saw it as a foreign disease symptomatic of immorality in other societies.
"As we told them more about the disease, they said they could contribute to raising awareness through mosques, using Islamic teachings for support," said Abdul Mateen, one of the volunteer trainers who lead the sessions.
Hundreds of prayer leaders now regularly deliver sermons that feature AIDS awareness messages, mostly focusing on family matters and the rights of the poor, who are disproportionately affected by the disease.
Preachers from Pakistan's minority Christian and Hindu communities have also been targeted, as have teachers in religious seminaries.
"A large number of seminary teachers are also helping us by talking about the disease and its prevention at their schools," Zaheer said.
Politicians, especially those from religious parties, have been the most reluctant converts to the scheme, not least because they often refuse to believe Pakistan has a problem.
Munawwar Hasan, secretary general of Pakistan's hardline Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami, agreed that preachers should be used to raise awareness but said it should not be restricted to AIDS.
"Despite these alarming figures, I believe the AIDS problem is not as serious here as it is in the West, because we largely stick to Koranic teachings, which forbid contact between a man and a woman out of wedlock," he said.
Authorities here believe AIDS was initially spread in the late 1980s by Pakistani men working abroad, who unknowingly infected their wives on their return.
Since then, a number of people have been infected with HIV through blood transfusions in Pakistan, where only around 50 percent of the blood supply is screened for the virus.
Zaheer said the Pakistani authorities were making a major effort to tackle the disease, although there are as yet only 12 AIDS treatment centres across the country, looking after 3,500 patients.
"We are in the process of scaling up treatment and services for HIV patients to meet deadlines by 2015," he said.
Prayer leader Azeem said people were initially reluctant to listen to his AIDS sermons, but they came round eventually.
"People actually do want to know about these issues," he said. "But it has to be communicated in the right way, and that is what we can do."
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