The event will also welcome 30 individuals who have been cured from the disease, some of whom will share their testimonies of suffering and societal exclusion – at times even from their families – due to misconceptions and cultural prejudices toward those infected with Hansen's Disease.
"The problem with leprosy is that even if these people are cured of this disease, they would still be facing stigma as well as discrimination from society and from the villages where they live, just because they used to be a patient of leprosy," Sasakawa said.
Up until recently, certain countries had laws preventing people with the disease, even those who have been cured, from getting onto trains or public buses. Some laws have even allowed for divorce should one spouse become infected.
In some cases, those affected by leprosy were barred from competing to become a parliamentarian, Sasakawa explained, noting that even today countries make it impossible for those affected by leprosy to immigrate, barring entry for those either sick or cured.
"Many people talk about the disease of leprosy, however there aren't many people who have shaken hands with those patients or the infected people, or who have touched them or who have heard human history directly from these people who experienced that disease," he said.
The testimonies from cured individuals, then, will be key to ending the stigma surrounding the disease, he said, because many people have never had any real contact with the patients, who often live a "very harsh and painful life throughout their experience" of illness.
"It's not us who should be speaking on behalf of these people, but the patients and the infected people themselves…so that the public would be able to feel more sympathy and show more empathy to these people and their lives of hardship," Sasakawa said.
He voiced his expectation that religious leaders who gather for the conference would cooperate in disseminating the correct information about leprosy, and would spread the message to their faithful that "people should not discriminate against people infected with leprosy."
Sasakawa also voiced his hope that individuals who have already been cured would become more vocal, rather than staying silent due to the fear of discrimination.
Fr. Jean-Marie Mate Musivi Mupendawatu, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance the Health Care Workers, was also present for the news conference.
He told journalists that while there is no scheduled encounter between Pope Francis and conference participants or those who have been cured from leprosy, the Pope is known for his "surprises."
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The conclusion of the event will be a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis this Sunday, June 12, for the Jubilee of Sick and Disabled Persons, he said, but added that "there could also be other surprises from Pope Francis. For now we're waiting. We still don't know what surprise" might come.
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.