AFRICA: POPE ON CONDOMS – OUT IN THE COLD
Mario de Queiroz
LISBON (IPS) - Political leaders, activists, scientists and even Catholic bishops all joined in the chorus of criticism against the stance taken by Pope Benedict with respect to the use of condoms to curb the impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa.
AIDS "is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems," the Pope said on a flight to Cameroon at the start of his first visit to Africa – home to 70 percent of all people living with HIV/AIDS – which ended Monday in Angola.
The governments of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain were among the first to react vigorously to the pontiff's words, defending the views of the leaders of the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and civil society groups, who had lashed out at the pope's remarks.
The Spanish government went so far as to order last Friday a donation of one million condoms to Africa, to underscore its opposition to Pope Benedict's statement.
UNAIDS, most of the world's governments, and NGOs defend the use of condoms as an effective measure to curb the spread of the AIDS virus.
The Catholic church, on the other hand, maintains that abstinence and marital fidelity are the only ways to prevent infection – a position held by Pope John Paul II and ratified by his successor Benedict shortly after he became pope in 2005.
NGOs, including groups with ties to the Catholic Church, used terms like "unacceptable" and ''mistaken, irresponsible and dangerous'' when describing the pope's remark, and said they were "furious" and "in a state of shock."
Jon O'Bien, president of the U.S.-based group Catholics for Choice, issued a statement saying that "For the Catholic hierarchy to deny the role that condoms play in preventing the further spread of HIV is irresponsible and dangerous." Judith Melby, an Africa specialist with Christian Aid, said "The pope's comments are not very helpful. It's sending a confusing message to Africa, in those countries where the Catholic church is very important." Alain Fogué, a spokesman for MOCPAT, a group in Cameroon that facilitates access to antiretroviral drugs for people living with HIV, asked "Is the pope living in the 21st century?"
"The people will not follow what the pope is saying. He lives in heaven and we are on earth," he said.