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AFRICA: Pope on Condoms – Out in the Cold

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Mar 23 2009 (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'Brien, 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.

In an attempt at damage control, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said on Mar. 19 that in his statements, the pontiff "put the emphasis on education and responsibility."

"You mustn't expect that this trip will change the position of the Catholic Church towards the problem of AIDS," because "to develop an ideology of confidence in the condom is not a correct position," Lombardi said.

However, condoms are distributed by many Catholic groups that provide support for those living with HIV. This was acknowledged in May 2008 during a meeting of the heads of Catholic organisations in Rome, when Italian missionary Maria Martinelli said that in many situations, condoms are necessary – a statement that was backed up by many African bishops.

The pope’s six-day Africa tour focused on visits to Cameroon and Angola, areas where the Portuguese began the evangelisation of Africa in the late 15th century.

"Last year alone, another 1.9 million cases were added to the 22 million people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa," Dr. Ana Filgueiras, coordinator of Rede-Sida, an NGO dedicated to fighting the spread of AIDS in the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), told IPS.

Rede-Sida works closely with Brazil, "the most advanced CPLP country in the fight against AIDS and one of the countries in the world that has had the greatest success in the war on the pandemic because civil society has a huge commitment to direct participation in policy-making by those affected by the disease," she said.

Although the group is also active in Portugal itself, the greatest emphasis in the activities led by Filgueiras is on East Timor in Asia and on Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe, the five African members of the CPLP.

The pope’s stance against the use of condoms "is completely criminal, aside from the fact that it contradicts scientific studies by the WHO (World Health Organisation) and UNAIDS, which have been widely reported," said the activist.

"These studies demonstrate that the use of condoms can prevent 90 percent of HIV infections," she stressed.

In many cases, no significant strides have been made in the fight against AIDS because the strategies "have been based on subjective concepts like morality," she said.

The Catholic church, "of all religions, is the only one that has contributed to the spread of the disease, by seeing it simply as a problem that could easily be solved if sex was only practiced within marriage, with strict observance of marital fidelity," she added.

The bishop of the armed forces of Portugal, Januário Torgal Ferreira, told the local press on Mar. 21 that "from a medical point of view, I have no doubt that there are obviously circumstances where prohibiting condoms is to consent to the death of many people."

Asked about the discrepancy between his and the pope’s views, the bishop merely stated that "everyone knows what I think about condom use," and said "the people who are advising the pope, who should be more cultured," are to be blamed for triggering the storm of outrage.

For her part, Left Bloc parliamentary deputy Joana Amaral Dias complained in an op-ed titled "Mortal Sin", published Sunday in the O Correio da Manhã, a Lisbon newspaper, about those who defend the pope by saying he was "merely expressing the position of the church," as if this explanation "reduced his responsibility" for his remarks.

"This position should be immediately modified, and they should accept basic scientific knowledge," because otherwise, "what should we think of the church and its leader when they use their power to spread medieval beliefs that endanger human life?" the legislator asked.

The Catholic church "can continue defending the stance that sex outside of marriage is a sin, but it must avoid turning that sin into homicide, which in the case of Africa becomes genocide," said Amaral Dias.

A Mar. 19 editorial in Spain’s leading daily El País described the pope’s rejection of condom use as "dangerous and irresponsible" because "no one, except the Catholic church, denies today the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission."

"Behind such an irresponsible message lurks the Catholic hierarchy’s mixed-up relationship with anything to do with sex," wrote the editorialist. "Rome defends abstinence even within marriage, as the only way to prevent the transmission of AIDS. Is the pope referring to the danger of promiscuity when he says condoms only increase the problem?"

Columnist José Ferreira Fernandes with the Diario de Noticias, a Lisbon paper, wrote that according to the pope’s arguments, "AIDS would stop spreading if sex were only practiced within marriage."

However, "there is extramarital sex, and lots of it, so it is like saying that condoms reduce transmission, but aren’t the solution and actually become a problem. In the fight against AIDS, that is just what the pope is: a problem," according to the analyst.

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