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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

MESSAGE: Looking to Religious Leaders

On March 20, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama paid a visit to the Tahirpur Leprosy Complex in India’s capital, New Delhi.

Clasping the hands of those who have endured physical and social suffering as a result of leprosy, His Holiness offered words of comfort and encouragement. “Never give up hope in the face of physical obstacles. Everybody has an equal right to happiness. What is most important is to have self-confidence.” There was no doubting that all were heartened by his message. As one who has spent many years working for people affected by leprosy, I was filled with gratitude.

By appealing to our inner selves, religion has the power to bring about social change. On my travels to different countries for leprosy elimination and other humanitarian causes, I have felt the influence that religion has on society. In meeting with many spiritual leaders over the years, I have observed the important role they play in a country or region.

In addition to giving encouragement to people affected by leprosy suffering from stigma and discrimination, religious figures can also change society’s perceptions of the disease.

That’s why, in 2009, I invited religious leaders representing the world’s leading faiths — including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism — to endorse my annual Global Appeal for an end to stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy.

It will be heartening if all religious leaders encourage people affected by leprosy and their families, just as the Dalai Lama has done by his recent colony visit. Furthermore, if these same leaders could clear up misunderstandings about leprosy in their talks at churches, temples and other places of worship, this would undoubtedly change perceptions about the disease. Should this happen, the walls of discrimination would slowly but surely crumble from both sides.

As I look at the role that religious leaders can play, I would like to call on them to be doing even more.

- Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador