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By Tsegaye Tadesse
ADDIS ABABA, May 24 (Reuters) - HIV and AIDS patients seeking a spiritual cure should take anti-retroviral drugs as well as holy water, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox church said on Wednesday.
Church patriarch Abune Paulos told about 5,000 faithful who came to the Entoto St. Mary church -- the bulk of whom are infected -- they should take advantage of the free anti-retroviral drugs provided by the United States.
"What we are saying is taking the drugs is neither a sin nor a crime," he said. "Both the Holy Water and the medicine are gifts of God. They neither contradict nor resist each other."
The Ethiopian church has been accused of preaching against the drugs in the past.
African leaders including Gambian President Yahya Jammeh and South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have been criticised for promoting spiritual or folk remedies at the expense anti-retrovirals.
The drugs in Ethiopia are being provided under U.S. President George W. Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
The programme has been criticised for giving the drugs mainly to countries which preach abstinence over birth control, and funnelling them through religious charities. The U.S. constitution demands the separation of church and state.
Many of those who came to the church said they had discontinued the drugs because they could not afford the nutritious foods they must take alongside them. Abune Paulos said the church would try to arrange food from donors.
With more than 1.7 million living with HIV/AIDS, Ethiopia is one of the most affected countries in the world, according to the U.N.'s World Health Organization. AIDS has killed over a million people over the last two decades in Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous country.