African religious leaders meet to discuss AIDS crisis, insist that abstinence is best

NAIROBI, Kenya - Religious leaders from across Africa opened a conference in Kenya's capital Monday to discuss how best to prevent the spread of HIV. All readily agreed that abstinence and fidelity, not condoms, was the best solution.

The World Conference on Religion and Peace brought together more than 150 Roman Catholic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim and Hindu religious leaders to share their experience in the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The group hopes to promote inter-religious cooperation to improve the efficiency of religious aid and outreach programs for people with HIV. AIDS is the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa, which has been hit hardest by the epidemic. African nations will experience 3.4 million new infections and 2.3 million deaths this year, according to U.N. figures.

"This is a massive problem that has to be fought at every conceivable level," Stephen Lewis, the U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said at the conference in Nairobi's Intercontinental Hotel. "You're trying to reach an entire society which is something that the religious leaders can do."

Many of the religious leaders admitted they had not done enough to educate their followers about HIV and how to prevent it, but they insisted their failure was in not promoting abstinence and marital fidelity enough.

"For us in the Orthodox church, abstinence is the only way of protecting against HIV," said Patriarch Paulos Abune of Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He insisted young people would listen to religious leaders who taught them to have sex only within marriage.

Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Nigeria argued that condoms had done little to slow the spread of HIV and could possibly encourage it, despite countless studies that have found that HIV infection levels would have been much higher without the widespread use of condoms.

"We started with condoms and have been flooded with condoms and HIV is still spreading," Onaiyekan said. "We believe it is possible for children to control themselves. We are teaching them that they are not animals and they can control themselves."

Muslim leaders also ruled out the possibility of promoting condom use.

"What we are advancing is lawful and safe sex. We need to advocate (abstinence and fidelity) more," said Magid Kagimu, an Islamic leader from Uganda.

All the clerics agreed religious groups need more money from donors in order to teach more about HIV and treat those already infected.

Carol Bellamy, executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund, said that while the United Nations promotes condom use in addition to abstinence and fidelity, religious leaders can make a difference.

"Religious leaders are able to reach the people," Bellamy said. "We are hoping that religious leaders in accordance with their traditions, culture and their environment stand up and become leaders in the battle against AIDS."