Interfaith Appeal to Eliminate DiscriminationRoman Curia and The Nippon Foundation jointly sponsor the Vatican’s first international symposium to think about leprosy
The Vatican hosted an interfaith, international symposium to enhance awareness of leprosy and dispel the discrimination that people affected by the disease face, “Towards Holistic Care for People with Hansen’s Disease, Respectful of their Dignity,” on June 9-10. Jointly organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, The Good Samaritan Foundation, and The Nippon Foundation, this was the Roman Curia’s first symposium on this subject.
The symposium was attended by approximately 250 people, including leaders of organizations that are battling leprosy-related discrimination in 45 countries, and religious leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish faiths in addition to Roman Catholics. The symposium dealt with three main issues: Reducing the Disease Burden; Helping the Sick and their Families; and Integrating them into Society.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is an infectious disease that mainly affects the skin and peripheral nerves. Without a cure until the middle of the 20th century, the disease has been feared throughout history for its disfiguring effects. With the development of multidrug therapy in the 1980s, however, there is now an effective cure for leprosy. Nevertheless, even after being released from treatment, people viewed as “former leprosy patients” continue to face harsh discrimination in areas including employment, marriage, and education. The symposium emphasized in particular the necessity for further work to break transmission of the disease and prevent new infections, and to promote tolerance and social inclusion.
On the subject of terminology, the symposium noted that use of the word “leper” in the Bible had contributed to fostering prejudice and discrimination and that the stigmatization of those with the disease has been compounded by the association of “leprosy” with sin. At the symposium, there were strong calls from people affected by leprosy not to use the pejorative word “leper,” and not to use leprosy in a metaphorical sense as a term of contempt.
References to the segregation and isolation of persons with leprosy are not limited to the Bible; they also feature in various historical documents. The symposium brought to light the fact that persons affected by leprosy still suffer today as a result of society’s lack of knowledge and lack of understanding of leprosy.
Many examples from around the world were reported, including laws that still exist preventing persons affected by leprosy from using public transportation, hotels and restaurants, and that make leprosy grounds for divorce. One speaker told of being forced to ride in a hearse when being quarantined to a sanatorium.
Attending the symposium from Japan, Masao Ishida, vice-chairman of the residents’ association of the National Sanatorium Nagashima-Aiseien in Okayama Prefecture, recounted, “When I was 10, I was taken from my family and placed in the Nagashima-Aiseien sanatorium. It has been a sad and harsh 70 years.”
Various religious leaders reasserted the major role religion has to play in the restoration of the human rights of persons affected by leprosy, noting, “Islam teaches there is a remedy for every disease,” “Religion cannot ignore people who are suffering,” and “All living beings have equal rights.”
Over the years, many people have played a major role through religious ministries on behalf of people affected by leprosy. In the 19th century, Father Damien traveled as a missionary to the island of Molokai in Hawaii and dedicated his life to the leprosy patients there. The Roman Catholic Church has carried out a fact-finding survey on leprosy in 760 parishes around the world, which showed that efforts are being made to promote a correct understanding of the disease and to provide support for employment and education. Other leaders reported on similar efforts being made by their respective religions. Many also used the example of support for persons infected with HIV/AIDS to underscore the need for interfaith cooperation.
At the conclusion of the two days of deliberation and discussion, Conclusions and Recommendations drafted by Professor Michele Aramini of the Catholic University of Milan were announced and welcomed by the participants, who renewed their desire to abolish leprosy-related prejudice and discrimination.
In their final form, the Recommendations, including two introductory points:
- Call for people affected by Hansen’s disease to be seen as the real protagonists in the fight against the disease and the discrimination it causes.
- Seek an end the use of discriminatory language that reinforces stigma.
- Urge the leaders of all religions to use their influence to contribute to the elimination of discrimination against people afflicted by leprosy.
- Encourage states and governments to implement the UN-approved ‘Principles and Guidelines’ on the elimination of leprosy-related discrimination.
- Seek the modification or abolition of all remaining laws that discriminate on the grounds of leprosy.
- Call for further scientific research to develop new tools to prevent and treat leprosy and to achieve better diagnostic methods.
- Urge Churches, religious communities, international organizations, major foundations, governments, NGOs and associations of people affected by leprosy to cooperate and unite in their efforts in order to achieve a leprosy-free world.
The Nippon Foundation