NAIROBI, Kenya — UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy, under pressure from African religious leaders at an AIDS conference last week, backed away from advocating condoms and sex education as a universal formula to battle the deadly disease.
"It's wrong to fit everything into one box," Mrs. Bellamy told reporters at the Nairobi conference, which was organized by the World Conference of Religions and Peace and paid for by UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The conference was attended by Hindu, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic leaders from across the continent.
"One way is not appropriate for everybody. In some instances, it may be advocating the use of condoms; in some instances it may not be. It's how you believe through your religion about the best way to respond," Mrs. Bellamy told reporters amid harsh criticism of U.N. policies from religious leaders.
John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, criticized condom distribution, saying, "Some countries have been flooded with condoms and HIV is increasing."
The patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulo, argued, "The only way of avoiding problems is abstinence."
UNICEF, at a U.N. General Assembly special session on children it co-sponsored in New York last month, insisted that access to condoms was a fundamental right.
The action plan that emerged from the U.N. session pledged that, in the next three years, 90 percent of young men and women aged 15 to 24 would have access to sex education and contraception to protect against the risks of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
But in Nairobi, Mrs. Bellamy was far less forthcoming on access to contraception, and aid agency officials at the conference condemned her statement as nonsensical.
"What does it mean?" asked one official, who asked not be identified. "This is not an issue that religious leaders can have different stances on. It will mean that children are going to hear from some religious leaders that it's fine to use condoms and from others that it's not. It sounds like a recipe for disaster to me."
Never before have African leaders from this many faiths come together to discuss AIDS, a topic that many clerics have studiously avoided in the past. Hopes, therefore, had been high before the conference began that something meaningful could emerge to protect the continent most affected by the disease.
More than 70 percent of the 36 million people infected with HIV worldwide live in Africa. Last year, 580,000 children under the age of 15 died of AIDS — 500,000 of them in Africa. Nearly 90 percent of the 2.7 million HIV-positive children under 15 live on the continent.
Clerics have tremendous influence in Africa, which puts them in a strategic position in the AIDS battle.