Intended for healthcare professionals


Religious leaders call for an end to discrimination against people living with AIDS

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 26 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1726
  1. Tony Sheldon
  1. 1Utrecht

    In the first summit of its kind, about 40 religious and spiritual leaders from every continent and many faiths pledged this week to work to eliminate stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS. They stressed that “AIDS was an illness, and not a sin,” and spoke of “remorse” for the harm people with HIV have suffered in the name of religion.

    The summit, held in the Netherlands, was organised by the Geneva based Christian network, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance. Leaders who were Buddhist, Christian (Protestant and Roman Catholic), Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’í, and Sikh met with executive directors of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

    In a joint statement they called for “universal respect for the human rights” of people affected by HIV and a “renewed sense of urgency” in response to HIV that included “holistic prevention including safer practices.”

    Each participant signed a personal pledge, which included a commitment “to protect human rights within my faith community.” It also said that “clear words and actions that stigma and discrimination… are unacceptable” were now needed.

    Michel Sidibe, UNAIDS executive director, said religious leaders had a vital role to play which included promoting “community solidarity” so ensuring “dignity and respect,” and the Reverend Dr Richard Fee, the Alliance chair and member of the Canadian Presbyterian Church, argued that in the midst of “AIDS fatigue” religious leaders could “inspire change.”

    The summit heard that faith based groups provide 30% to 70% of health care in Africa. In Lesotho and Zambia they account for 40% to 70% of HIV related care.

    Norway’s bishop emeritus Dr Gunnar Stålsett said he felt a sense of humility that although faith based organisations were prominent care givers, they were also among those promoting stigma.

    Representatives of people who are HIV positive were also present at the summit in an attempt to “bridge the gap” with religious leaders.

    The reverend Patricia A Sawo, a Pentecostal church pastor in Kenya’s rift valley and the UK Tearfund’s HIV/AIDS ambassador, experienced discrimination when she disclosed her HIV positive status in 2000. She stressed that the shame and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in Africa has driven the problem underground and made it far worse.

    “Whenever AIDS is talked about it is seen as affecting only a minority of people, of equalling sex outside of marriage or punishment from God—that is not true. That is what creates stigma,” she said.

    Concluding, Rabbi David Rosen from Jerusalem said, “It has taken an enormous global challenge to bring us together as religious leaders. This challenge enables us to be what we should be, working together for the betterment of humanity.”

    The summit is the latest event in a series of collaborations between the UN and religious groups. In December UNAIDS released a strategic framework for partnership with faith based groups in response to HIV.

    The summit comes a year after the Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI declared that condom use exacerbated the HIV/AIDS problem. His comments were condemned as irresponsible and for putting religious dogma before the lives of Africans (BMJ 2009;338:b1206; doi:10.1136/bmj.b1206).


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1726

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