African Clerics Acknowledge They've Failed to Combat AIDS

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 10 — A broad array of African religious leaders gathered here today to acknowledge that they have been far too silent as AIDS has swept through their congregations.

"We have not done enough," said Abune Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He was joined by more than 100 other religious leaders here at a conference on the role of religion in combating AIDS. The leaders represented 30 countries and numerous religions.

The religious leaders vowed to urge their followers to show compassion to victims, especially to the so-called AIDS orphans, who have lost their parents to the disease.

"Some leaders are still afraid of them," said the Rev. Jane Nuthu, an Assemblies of God pastor who runs a program for street children. "They don't want to touch them."

Ms. Nuthu did plenty of touching today as she led some of her religious brethren on a tour of her program, which serves 150 children at a time. "We take any kid that is desperate," she said, as a girl who lost her mother to AIDS clung to her. "And we don't judge them."

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

"A powerful missing ingredient has been the voice of the churches, the mosques, the temples — the entire religious constellation," said Stephen Lewis, special adviser on AIDS to the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan.

Mr. Lewis won applause for his remarks opening the session today even though he delivered a blunt message on the performance of religious leaders regarding AIDS.

"Dare I say that the voice of religion has been curiously muted?" he said. The conference was one of the largest interfaith gatherings of African religious leaders to discuss AIDS. But it was not the first such session, and organizers acknowledged that it will take real changes in attitude, not just holding conferences, to reduce the rate of infection.

Participants in the Nairobi conference, organized by the World Conference on Religion and Peace, circulated a draft declaration of principles acknowledging shortcomings.

"We have been reluctant to speak openly about H.I.V.-AIDS and have thus at times contributed to the silence and stigma that surround the disease," the draft says. "We have allowed fear and denial to prevent us from getting good information and education about H.I.V.-AIDS and, in turn, sharing that information with the members of our conference."

Carol Bellamy, the executive director of Unicef, who participated in the session, said it was not realistic to expect that all the leaders would agree on such contentious issues as the need to use condoms. But she said religious leaders have a unique ability to raise issues of sexuality with their followers.

Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, said he intended to address AIDS more directly in the church. But he and other leaders said they remained convinced that abstinence, not condoms, was the answer. "Those who don't promote condoms should not be seen as uninterested in H.I.V.-AIDS," he said.