"Today I will start with a three-part sermon on: Jesus was HIV-positive," South African Pastor Xola Skosana recently said in a Sunday church service.
HIV still carries a stigma in South Africa’s townships
The words initially stunned his congregation in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township into silence, and then set tongues wagging in churches across the country.
Some Christians have been outraged, saying he is portraying Jesus as sexually promiscuous.
HIV is mainly transmitted through sex, but can also be spread through needle-sharing, contaminated blood, pregnancy and breastfeeding.
However, as Pastor Skosana told those gathered in the modest Luhlaza High School hall for his weekly services, in many parts of the Bible Jesus put himself in the position of the destitute, the sick and the marginalised.
"Wherever you open the scriptures Jesus puts himself in the shoes of people who experience brokenness. Isaiah 53, for example, clearly paints a picture of Jesus who takes upon himself the infirmities and the brokenness of humanity," he told the BBC.
He is also quick to emphasise that he is using the metaphor to highlight the danger of the HIV/Aids pandemic, which still carries a stigma in South Africa's townships.
"Of course, there's no scientific evidence that Jesus had the HI virus in his bloodstream," says the pastor, whose non-denominational Hope for Life Ministry is part of a growing charismatic movement in South Africa.
"The best gift we can give to people who are HIV-positive is to help de-stigmatise Aids and create an environment where they know God is not against them, he's not ashamed of them."
But Pastor Mike Bele, who officiates at the Nomzamo Baptist Church in nearby Gugulethu, said most clergy in Khayelitsha and other Cape Town townships are strongly opposed to associating Jesus with HIV.
"The subject of my Jesus being HIV-positive is a scathing matter," he says.
"I believe no anointed leader with a sound mind about the scriptures and the role of Christ in our lives would deliberately drag the name of Christ to the ground."
For Pastor Bele portraying Jesus as HIV-positive means he becomes part of the problem, not the solution.
"The pastor needs to explain how it came about for him to bring Christ to our level, when Christ is supreme and is God," he says.
"There is a concern that non-believers would mock Christ and try to generalise Christ as opposed to the powerful force we believe him to be."
But Pastor Skosana, who has been in the ministry for 24 years and lost two sisters to Aids, argues that religious leaders have to play a much bigger role in combating the spread of the pandemic in South Africa where more than 5.7 million people live with the virus - more than in any other country.
And he concluded the last of his three-part sermon by taking an HIV test in front of the congregation - after which 100 churchgoers followed his example.
"The message to the church is that it is not enough for us to give people food privately and give them groceries, we must create an environment that's empowering because most people who are HIV-positive will not necessarily die of Aids-related sickness but more of a broken heart, out of rejection," he says.
'Fear and ignorance'
Amid the controversy, Reverend Siyabulela Gidi, the director of South African Council of Churches in the Western Cape, has come out in support of Pastor Skosana, saying his standpoint is theologically correct.
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HIV in South Africa
* 5.7m carry Aids virus
* 18% of those aged 15 to 49 HIV-positive
* 460,000 receiving ARVs(estimated in 2008)
* 350 000 deaths due to Aids (estimated in 2007)
* 1.4m Aids orphans
Source: UNAids/WHO/Unicef epidemiological fact sheet, 2008
"What Pastor Skosana is clearly saying is that Christ at this point in time would be on the side of the people who are HIV-positive - people who are being sidelined by the very church that is attacking him," the Anglican priest says.
"Pastor Skosana has fortunately got the country talking, he's got the world talking and that is what theology is all about."
Outside religious circles, Pastor Skosana has also received support from Aids activists.
"The pastor's sermon takes away the stigma that HIV is a sin and that it's God's punishment," says Vuyiseka Dubula, general secretary of the powerful Aids lobby group Treatment Action Campaign.
"To associate Jesus with HIV is powerful, particularly for those who go to church. Now people are starting to think: 'If Jesus could be HIV-positive who am I not to have it even if I go to church?'"
Jan Glazewski, a professor of marine and environmental law at the University of Cape Town who has been HIV-positive for 25 years, wrote in a letter to the Cape Times newspaper that he identified with the idea that God was on the side of the poor and marginalised.
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