The Rev. Gideon Byamugisha, a Ugandan who became the first known African cleric to declare publicly he was HIV-positive, breaking stigma-induced silence that often hampers combating the illness, has been awarded the Niwano Peace Prize.
The award is often seen as akin to a Nobel Peace Prize for members of the faith community. It is awarded by the Japan-based Niwano Peace Foundation. The prize comes with 20 million yen ($267,000 Cdn), the Buddhist group said in a Feb. 20 statement. This is the second time in five years the prize has gone to Uganda.
In 2004, the prize was awarded to the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative, a northern Uganda organization in which the members of different religions, including Islam and Christianity (Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican), work together in a region wracked by armed conflict.
A teacher by profession, an Anglican pastor by calling and a theologian by training, Byamugisha will be presented with the prize in Tokyo on May 7.
One member of the prize committee said, “Canon Gideon has turned personal suffering into a religious message of hope and courage and has matched it with constructive action that has provided inspiration and help to so many who have fallen victim to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
Linda Hartke who heads the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance that focuses on HIV and AIDS told Ecumenical News International, “Gideon broke a huge barrier of silence and denial when he announced publicly that he was living with HIV.”
She said, “This has had a profound impact on religious communities all over the world – leading to the formation of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS (ANERELA+), and also raising awareness among churches and people of faith … and calling them to be strong advocates for prevention, treatment, care and support.”
Hartke noted Byamugisha’s sway goes “far beyond religious communities”. His work impacts “governments and international organizations alongside other civil society organizations”, she said. “He has raised the visibility of faith-based leadership in the response to AIDS, improved partnerships with different sectors of the response and added significant additional pressure on governments in particular to fulfil their commitments in responding to AIDS.”
One of the prize committee said of the priest, “He behaves not like a victim but a mover and shaker, he defends and protects as a human being and a pastor the most vulnerable on the planet.”
Byamugisha was born in 1959, and learned in 1991 that he was HIV positive. He is a canon of two cathedrals, one in Uganda and the other in Zambia.
The Niwano prize is named after the first president of the lay Buddhist organization Rissho Kosei-kai, Nikkyo Niwano. He devoted much of the last half of his life to promoting world peace, especially through inter-religious discussion and co-operation.
Among past recipients of the prize are former World Council of Churches’ general secretary Philip Potter (1986), the World Muslim Congress (1987), the Corrymeela Community in Ireland (1997), the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative in Uganda (2004), theologian Hans Kung (2005), Rabbis for Human Rights (2006) and Dharma Master Cheng Yen (2007).
Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan was the 2008 winner of the Niwano Peace Prize for efforts at building peace with justice in the Middle East.