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Religious groups from around the globe pledged Tuesday to prevent the stigmatization of people living with HIV and AIDS, in a joint statement welcomed by a senior U.N. official as a sea change in attitudes.

Representatives of some 40 religions and faith groups including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism ended a two-day retreat in the Netherlands by signing a “personal commitment to action” in which they vowed to “be clear in my words and actions that stigma and discrimination towards people living with or affected by HIV is unacceptable.”

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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.

“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.

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the United Nations Population Fund‘s executive director, called Tuesday’s statement “a sea change.”

“There is no talk about sinning or repentance,” she said. “It is more about acceptance of people living with HIV.”

The delegates acknowledged that some church and faith groups had played an active role in the stigmatization they now have committed to end.

“With remorse we regret that those living with HIV have at times been at the receiving end of judgment, rejection … ,” they wrote in a statement. “We need to make greater efforts to ensure that all people living with HIV find a welcome within faith communities.”

The statement came after two days of discussions in which Byamugisha said that delegates sometimes struggled “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 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.

By MIKE CORDER, Associated Press Writer Mike Corder, Associated Press Writer Tue Mar 23, 2:59 pm ET;_ylt=Ag0xy7maz04EVbsnabSGoZU7Xs8F;_ylu=X3oDMTMyZXQ1Mmk1BGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMTAwMzIzL2V1X25ldGhlcmxhbmRzX3JlbGlnaW9uX2FpZHMEcG9zAzQEc2VjA3luX3BhZ2luYXRlX3N1bW1hcnlfbGlzdARzbGsDcmVsaWdpb3VzZ3Jv

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