Concluding a four-day summit in Kenya on fighting AIDS in Africa, Protestant church leaders across the continent condemned the stigmatization of people infected with the HIV virus and vowed to use their churches as health centers to fight the AIDS scourge.

As the HIV virus has swept across the continent, the message from many African pulpits has been that it was a curse from God. People with AIDS have been condemned as sinners, and refused funerals when they died.

With AIDS claiming 17 million African lives already, 30 million people infected with the virus and about three million new infections every year, the president of the All Africa Council of Churches, Reverend Nyansanko-ni Nki, from Cameroon, says church leaders are now committing themselves to full-scale war against AIDS in Africa.

Reverend Nki says one of the most important aspects of that fight is ending the church's silence that feeds the stigma surrounding HIV. "During the summit, we raised pertinent issues towards closing the gaps and limitations in our interventions, such as the need to develop clear, common policies to eradicate the persistent culture of silence that promotes stigmatization, thus inhibiting effective responses in prevention, care and counseling," the reverend said.

Reverend Nki says religious leaders at the summit agreed on a range of commitments, including promoting the empowerment of women and children, making themselves more financially accountable with AIDS-related resources, and supporting a World Health Organization initiative to provide anti-retroviral drug treatment for three-million people infected with HIV by the end of 2005.

But the church leaders stopped short of endorsing condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. Condom use still is unacceptable to most religious groups in Africa. Instead, the council recognized condoms as an option, but encouraged abstinence and fidelity.

With more than 200 heads of churches in 39 countries across the continent, the council of churches is one of Africa's largest ecumenical organizations, representing about 120 million Christians in Africa.

Africans themselves must mobilize against the virus by building self-confidence, says Kenyan Reverend Mvume Dandala, the council's general secretary.

"If Africa does not awake now to this disease, this pandemic has the capacity to annihilate the African population," he said. "And this should not be taken lightly. Africans are not helpless in the face of this disease. There is much that we can do."

Church groups run about 40 percent of Africa's health clinics and hospitals. To help them provide treatment and counseling for people with AIDS, religious leaders at the summit appealed to international aid organizations, which have been reluctant to provide funding for faith-based organizations, because of their stance against condom use.

But ignoring religious groups in the fight against AIDS in Africa is risky. An estimated 85 percent of Africans, both Christians and Muslims, claim to be part of a religious community.