Religious groups discuss ending AIDS stigma

The Hague, Netherlands - Religious groups from around the globe discussed Tuesday how to help the global fight against AIDS by preventing victims becoming outcasts from society.

Canon Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest from Uganda, said the way his church treated him after he discovered he had HIV should set an example for the rest of the world.

"They reacted with support and understanding," he said in a telephone interview. "There were sections who were annoyed and disappointed I was HIV positive, but a big number opted to give me the love, care and support I needed."

Byamugisha lost his first wife to AIDS and has since remarried to a woman with HIV. He told church officials in 1992 that he had HIV and was one of the first African clerics to reveal he had the disease.

Earlier this month, Byamugisha was among a delegation that delivered a petition signed by 500,000 people to Uganda's parliament calling on lawmakers to reject a proposed law that would impose the death penalty on some gays. Byamugisha said the bill teaches intolerance and hatred and is counter to the constitution's anti-discrimination laws.

Representatives including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were expected to round off two days of talks by pledging to fight discrimination against those with AIDS and HIV.

They were discussing how "do we confront the stigma and shame and denial and discrimination that usually surrounds these issues," Byamugisha said.

However, some divisions remained among leaders, he added, with delegates "still struggling with how to balance between communicating the religious messages that talk about morality and spirituality (and) public health challenges on the ground."

The use of condoms to fight the spread of HIV infections also was discussed, but only as a side issue, Byamugisha said.

A year ago, Pope Benedict XVI drew unprecedented criticism when he said that distributing condoms was not the answer to Africa's AIDS problem and could make it worse.

He said a moral attitude toward sex - abstinence and marital fidelity - would help fight the disease.

Rev. Richard Fee of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which helped organized the meeting, said that in the past some religious leaders "have spoken and acted in ways that fueled discrimination and stigma."

But he said that religious groups can now join the front line in battling AIDS and HIV.

"If we are going to deal with this pandemic, the way we are going to get the message to every village in the world through education is through faith based groups which do touch every village in the world," he said.