The Role of
Religious Leaders in Reducing Stigma and Discrimination
Satellite Session, 21 September 2003
3, Kenyatta International Conference Centre
A Report of
the Round Table Discussion
according to the UNAIDS definition, is a powerful tool of social
control that can be used to marginalize, exclude and exercise power
over individuals who show certain characteristics. Stigma and
discrimination in the context of HIV/AIDS can be traced back to the
moment that HIV/AIDS was first described and the subsequent
identification of `high-risk groups’ as being the majority of
individuals initially infected by HIV. Although there are examples
of individuals, families and communities that have risen beyond
stigma and discrimination to show acts of compassion, care and
support to those who are affected and infected, individuals and
communities continue to stigmatize and discriminate against
individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
leaders have a unique catalytic role to play in addressing stigma
and discrimination within communities. Religious leaders can
influence a community’s response. Unfortunately, many religious
leaders have spoken in judgment against HIV/AIDS equating it to sin
that afflicts un-believers and those who have fallen short in their
morals. Ironically, religion is full of hope for those who suffer
and this can be translated into action to support those infected and
affected by HIV/AIDS.
Satellite Session on `The Role of Religious Leaders in Reducing
Stigma and Discrimination Related to HIV/AIDS’ offered a unique
opportunity for religious leaders to deliberate on their response to
HIV/AIDS and to offer suggestions for deeper religious engagement in
eradicating stigma. Organized by the World Conference of Religions
for Peace and the CORE Initiative, with support from USAID, the
session brought together religious leaders, people living with
HIV/AIDS and other participants working in the area of HIV/AIDS to
focus on developing suggestions for the way forward in addressing
stigma and discrimination.
The session was
designed to be a round table discussion, with panelists responding
to questions raised by the moderator and each other. Mr. Stephen
Lewis, the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa,
served as the moderator, with the following persons on the panel:
Heath, Anglican Priest and Coordinator of African Network of
Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV/AIDS (ANRELA),
Ditsheko, Chairman, Southern Africa Region, Organization of
African Instituted Churches, Botswana
Sheikh Al Hajj
Yussuf Murigu, Vice Chair – The Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM),
Dr. Musa Dube,
Consulting Theologian, WCC- Ecumenical HIV/AIDS Initiative in
Lwaminda, Secretary General – Symposium of the Episcopal
Conferences of Africa & Madagascar (SECAM), Ghana
The session was
organized around various themes and questions that served to guide
the discussion among the panelists. Members of the audience also
were able to raise questions and comments at the end of the panel
presents a summary of the panel discussion and the main
recommendations offered by the panel. It has been organized under
the thematic areas that guided the discussion. A list of the themes
and subquestions is attached to this report as Annex 1.
discrimination has often been fueled by the tendency in religious
communities to equate HIV/AIDS with sin. As well, stigma and
discrimination within religious organizations can be perpetuated
through the lack of a structure and policy to deal with people who
are HIV+. This has led to individual clergy refusing to be tested
for HIV for fear of being found positive and those who have tested
HIV+ refusing to speak of their status for fear of a negative
response from the church. “Parishes do not accept a priest living
with HIV,” said Rev. Japé Heath of South Africa. This environment
creates a great deal of self-stigma for those infected, as they fear
the response from others both in their personal and professional
Rev. Heath spoke
of his problems since he came out regarding his status. While his
own parish has been supportive, it is unlikely that he could find
another parish in which he could serve as a consequence of being
HIV+. As he stated, “the Bishop has allowed me to live and work
openly with HIV but he can not be able to find another parish that
will accept me”.
confirming status has also led clergy who may be HIV+ not to access
care and support services even though these might be available.
Clergy prefer to remain silent about their status and die in fear of
it ever being found out. Rev. Heath told a story about a young
priest who feared testing because if he were found to be HIV+ he
would not be ordained. He went for testing and the result came back
positive. After counseling he went on treatment. He was doing well
on treatment, however during this time his family discovered his
status. The reaction from his family caused him to deteriorate and
he died shortly after.
family notification are a real dilemma confronting clergy in their
work with HIV/AIDS. Due to the need to confront and control the
spread of the HIV epidemic, they are often advised to speak out
during funerals and state openly that HIV/AIDS was the cause of
death. However, they need to consider carefully the implications of
such an announcement to the survivors of the dead individual. It
may mean that because of their announcement the family of the dead
individual would be stigmatized and ostracized by the community in
which they live. Such an announcement has often led to isolation
and finger pointing in past. “There is too much silence around the
issue. Stigma has to do with the fact that too few people have come
out about their status,” noted Dr. Musa Dube. But the panelists
agreed that it is important to consult the family and take a measure
of the community on the issue in relation to any such public
need to review theological literature so as to show some loving and
care to people who are infected and affected with HIV/AIDS”. With
this opening statement the panelists were unanimous in their
agreement that the Bible and the Koran remain a big resource that
can be used to address stigma. During the times of Jesus, people
who had leprosy were stigmatized but there is a very good history of
how Jesus addressed them through compassion and love and not
rejection. Leaders should use the examples left by Jesus to address
HIV/AIDS related stigma.
There are some
efforts underway to address theological language. A curriculum has
been developed for use in training religious leaders on HIV/AIDS
issues. This curriculum focuses on how the leaders can mainstream
HIV/AIDS into daily sermons. Liturgy is also being written to
provide reference for religious leaders on HIV/AIDS when giving
sermons. In Kenya, workshops have been held to sensitize Imams on
HIV/AIDS “…and this is showing an impact in the Pumwani Community of
Kenya” ~ Sheikh Al Hajj Murigu of the Supreme Council of Kenya
Dube emphasized the need for the Church to understand issues that
drive the HIV epidemic such as gender inequality, social injustice
and denial of rights. Religion needs to address women as a social
category of the population that is affected by HIV/AIDS. “Religious
writings predominantly come from a patriarchal culture, a fact that
disadvantages women because it leads to gender inequality,” she
(abstain, be faithful or condomise) language of HIV/AIDS is
stigmatizing. If you go to buy a condom people will presume that
you cannot do the other two!” ~ stated Rev. Heath.
There is no
doubt that silence around HIV/AIDS fuels stigma, but the question is
how can religious leaders help to break the silence? The panelists
had the following in answer to this question, posed by the
Stigma can be
addressed through talking openly about sexuality. “Address
religious leaders and empower them to talk about AIDS…develop their
capacity in the language of compassion and support”. ~ Sheikh Murigu.
fear in people; develop a theology of respect of human dignity,
compassion, solidarity and mercy that inspires hope in the person.
Revisit theological thinking” ~ Rev. Heath.
“Maybe we need
to confront the stigma by talking openly about HIV/AIDS. Talk as if
there is no stigma”. ~ Sheikh Murigu.
language to convey ideas on HIV/AIDS. Invent new phrases because
people are tired with the same old language of sin and death”. ~
Bishop Ditsheko, Regional Chairman of the Organization of African
various examples to show that religious leaders are confronting
stigma. At the individual level several religious leaders
especially from Uganda and South Africa have come out openly to say
that they are living with HIV. This helps to demystify the epidemic
and give it a human face within the religious circles. A good
example is Rev. Canon Gideon Byamugisha who is doing a great job in
fighting stigma and helping those affected not only in Uganda but
also across Africa.
Pumwani Village, imams are talking more openly about HIV/AIDS and
how the community can offer care and support to people living with
HIV. However, these leaders need training and effective
materials/information so that they can address HIV/AIDS issues more
effectively. They should be equipped with adequate skills to openly
and authoritatively speak about the epidemic.
that face religious leaders revolve around the development of
effective religious values and the development of strategies to
address stigma in the religious circles and in the community at
large. There is need to develop values of love, compassion, care
understanding and inclusiveness. Religious leaders need to talk
more openly about HIV/AIDS and to support those who are infected
with HIV. “Religious leaders need to talk methodically, endlessly
and relentlessly and at every opportunity about HIV/AIDS”. ~
Stephen Lewis, Moderator.
leaders have been challenged to use a language that is
compassionate, loving and caring regarding HIV/AIDS. “Compassion is
about suffering with those who suffer, but also working to transform
the situation,” said Dr. Dube. There is need for religious leaders
to share experiences that they have had when addressing stigma in
their communities so that they can strengthen the effectiveness of
their various approaches.
are several examples of religious leaders who are open about their
HIV+ status and use this to educate their communities, it remains a
tremendous challenge for most to come out openly and reveal their
status. Religious communities need to deal with their structures and
policies to be more accommodating to clergy who are living with
HIV. Religious leaders who are living with HIV need support
networks that can help them to cope with their status as well as use
their status as an opportunity to teach the religious community
regarding HIV/AIDS. This can only happen if religion is more
supportive of HIV+ religious leaders.
There is need to
educate and develop the capacity of religious leaders on HIV/AIDS
issues so that when they talk about it they do so authoritatively.
Materials need to be developed using a simple language that
communicates the message about HIV/AIDS. As Fr. Lwaminda noted, “we
need to use ‘the language of Jesus’ – stories and examples that are
simple and immediate to people’s everyday experience.”
language needs to be re-visited so that it fits the HIV/AIDS
context. There is need for a language of compassion, dignity and
love that is inclusive and not exclusive to those who are affected
and infected with HIV/AIDS.
There is need to
address human rights, gender inequality and social injustice in
addressing stigma and discrimination. The linkages between these
three concepts in the context of HIV/AIDS need to be clearly
understood by religious leaders, as personal behavior that
contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS must be seen in the context of
discussion by religious leaders led to many questions and comments
from the audiences, some of which could not be addressed because of
What is the
link between stigmata and stigma? If the church is Christ’s body
and the Church is affected by HIV/AIDS then the statement “The
Body of Christ has AIDS” can be used as a shock language to get
people to address stigma.
church celebrates stigmata and this linkage can be used to address
stigma and HIV/AIDS. If the Church is affected by HIV/AIDS then
Jesus is equally affected. As a church then we can say we are
living positively with HIV/AIDS. ~ Rev. Heath.
Do we need to re-define human sexuality and its role in the
spread of HIV within the religious framework?
Sexuality in African culture was an individual affair. There
is a dilemma on how best to handle this as cultures vary greatly and
are so dynamic. However, there is need to create a language of
human sexuality within religious institutions and in the context of
In the African culture disease was a communal affair, why are
we addressing it at the individual level?
is dynamic and it can be re-drawn to address disclosure of the cause
of death. We should also recognize that African culture, in its
granting dominance to the man, makes the women vulnerable.
Do we need a structure in the church to be compassionate and
church needs a structure – a law that states no person will be
discriminated against in church.
Is testing for HIV not a way of discriminating?
What is the church’s view regarding condoms? By the church
taking such a strong stance against condoms they deny others the
right to live particularly in the context of discordant couples.
In Somalia a workshop was held to raise the awareness of
religious leaders on HIV/AIDS. This has proved to be a very good
method because the leaders have started talking openly about
How does religion in Kenya address sexually active Kenyans
(including homosexuals)? What is the religious position on condoms?
Answer: There is
need to develop a theology that embraces all people. Marginalized
groups need to come out and challenge the church on this issue.
Religious communities need to deal with people and their needs
without categorizing them as sinners or non-sinners. The religious
leaders do not want to agree that they do not know how to deal with
HIV/AIDS and related stigma and discrimination – they have taken the
position of God to judge others. They have to agree that they do
not have all knowledge and answers to this problem.
sector needs to think about linking with non-religious sectors as
a way of moving forward.
A lady in the
audience gave a moving story of how she had received support from
her church despite being HIV+. She is using her experiences
to talk to others within the church on positive living
The panel of
religious leaders made the following recommendations as the way
forward in addressing stigma and discrimination:
Address HIV/AIDS as a disease like any other, don’t create
unnecessary fear in people or feed the attitudes that stigmatize
Develop policies and structures in each religious community
to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic as well as those members who are
living with the virus, and use these to strengthen public and legal
Document the religious responses to HIV/AIDS so that
experiences and knowledge can be shared;
Develop the capacities of religious leaders through training
programs and experience sharing on HIV and AIDS;
Revisit and make use of the sacred texts and other
theological language that can provide more support of people living
with HIV/AIDS. Simple and compassionate language is very essential,
as is the careful use of all language to provide positive
Address sexuality in theological language;
Encourage different religions to work together and share
information and expertise on HIV/AIDS;
Develop policy statements for working with people living with
HIV/AIDS, which will provide an opportunity for inclusiveness within
1. Reality of stigma and discrimination for those living with
How do you experience stigma and discrimination?
How have you seen stigma experienced inside your religious
What are obstacles and/or barriers to overcoming the problem?
2. Theology and language to reduce stigma
What efforts are underway to develop theological tools for
responding to AIDS and reducing stigma?
How do we develop language that emphasizes compassion and
inclusion drawing on religious teachings?
3. Practical experiences and lessons learned
What examples are there of how religious leaders are
effectively confronting stigma?
Where are there gaps or difficulties?
4. Challenges to leadership
What values need to be promoted that can counteract stigma at
What can religious leaders do to reduce stigma in their
What can they do to reduce stigma in the broader society?
Recommendations for moving forward