African Clerics Admit Church Has Been 'Too Silent' On Aids

MORE than 100 African religious leaders who recently attended a HIV-AIDS conference in Nairobi, Kenya, have acknowledged that the Church has been far too silent on the epidemic in Africa.

One of the four Namibian participants, Chief Executive Officer of Catholic AIDS Action, Sister Raphaela Haendler, told The Namibian that the clerics vowed to fight "against shame, stigma and discrimination".

She said the Namibian participants agreed to work together while the Catholic Church of Africa had set up a taskforce to take the fight forward on the continent.

In a declaration issued after the meeting, the Church leaders admit they had been reluctant to speak openly about HIV-AIDS and as a result had, at times, contributed to the silence and stigma that surround the disease.

"We have allowed fear and denial to prevent us from getting good information and education about HIV-AIDS and, in turn, sharing that information with the members of our conference," the declaration states.

The religious leaders vowed to urge their members to show compassion towards people affected by HIV-AIDS, particularly orphans.

Advocates for AIDS patients have long complained that many religious leaders in Africa, where the disease is at its worst, have been tentative in their approach to AIDS, often castigating those who contract the virus rather than comforting them.

In Namibia the Catholic Church has taken a lead role in fighting the disease, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia launched its AIDS programme (ELCAP) last year.

Haendler said she was touched to see "Christian leaders with Cardinals, Archbishops, Muslim sheiks and women, Hindus, Jews, Bahai, traditionalists present[ing] a colourful picture in their religious garbs" at the Nairobi gathering.

"All had one common intention: to fight the pandemic in Africa, to help and save our children," she said.

Clerics at the conference - which addressed the role of religion in combating AIDS - represented 30 countries and a variety of faiths.