Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called for the global decriminalisation of homosexuality to aid the fight against HIV, comparing anti-gay laws to racial segregation in his home country of South Africa.

Writing in The Lancet, the former Archbishop of Cape Town said the laws around the world which criminalise “so many forms of human love and commitment” will be looked on in the future in a similar way to apartheid laws, calling them “so obviously wrong”.

As part of the Lancet’s series on HIV transmission among men who have sex with men, the cleric calls for greater acceptance of LGBT people to reduce stigma.

He wrote: “The papers in The Lancet Series on HIV in men who have sex with men (MSM) tell us about how far we have to go in providing care, in acceptance, in ceasing to withhold our love.

“They also tell us what we each already know, if we are prepared to be honest with ourselves—that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are a part of every human community.”

The Archbishop said gays “already have God’s full love and acceptance — they are his children too”, but said they need “acceptance” and “love” from others in society.

He said it was “up to all to work to change” the laws which treat gays as “inferior”. More than 70 countries criminalise homosexual acts.

He added: “I have no doubt that in the future, the laws that criminalise so many forms of human love and commitment will look the way the apartheid laws do to us now—so obviously wrong. Such a terrible waste of human potential.”

The cleric praised the “young people” around the world whom he said “seem to already know this” and have distanced themselves from “intolerance”.

To young gay, bisexual and transgender people, he wrote: “God loves you as you are. He wants you to live and to thrive. So please take care of yourself, educate yourself about HIV, protect your partners, honour and cherish them.

“And never let anyone make you feel inferior for being who you are. When you live the life you were meant to live, in freedom and dignity, you put a smile on God’s face.”

The archbishop’s comments have been welcomed as “inspirational” by sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust.

Genevieve Edwards, Director of Health Improvement at THT, said: “Archbishop Tutu’s words are both moving and heartening. Stigma is a major factor driving the disproportional spread of the HIV epidemic among gay and bisexual men, not just in the UK but worldwide.

“If you spend your life being told you are a second class citizen, you have less motivation to take care of yourself and you’re more likely to take risks with your health. To improve someone’s self care you need, first and foremost, to improve their self esteem.

“The Archbishop’s commentary should act as a clarion call to all of us, whatever our beliefs, that there is a basic human responsibility to accept and respect others for who they are. With more than 100,000 people now living with HIV in the UK, faith groups have an increasingly important role to play in raising awareness and halting the spread of infection, outside the church as well as within.

“It is inspirational to see Archbishop Tutu leading the charge on this.”