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Hit by Aids, Africa welcomes pope's condom message

Jason Straziuso, Jenny Gross

The pope's suggestion that condoms could be used in limited situations has grabbed the attention of Africa which has a soaring number of Catholics.

The pope’s stunning suggestion that condoms could be used in limited situations has grabbed the attention of Africa, which has a soaring number of Catholics and a raging HIV pandemic.

From church leaders to Aids activists, many Africans welcomed Pope Benedict XVI’s message that condoms could be morally justified in some cases, such as with male prostitutes to prevent the spread of HIV. Some disagreed with him.

More than 20-million people across Africa are infected with HIV—more than the rest of the world combined. A half-million more people become infected each year in South Africa alone.

“I say hurrah for Pope Benedict,” said Linda-Gail Bekker, chief executive of South Africa’s Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. She said his statement may prompt many people at risk of contracting HIV to “adopt a simple lifestyle strategy to protect themselves”.

Sello Hatang, spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, applauded the pope, saying “condom use is essential in the fight against HIV”.

While some church leaders in Africa disagreed with the new approach and others said they are waiting for an official church communique, Bishop Valentine Seane, the leader of Botswana’s 70 000 Catholics, said he is open to the idea of condom use.

“The lesser evil is to use available means of protection,” Seane said.

‘The intention is vital’
The Catholic Church rejects the use of condoms as part of its overall teaching against artificial contraception. Senior Vatican officials have advocated fidelity in marriage and abstinence from premarital sex as key weapons in the fight against Aids.

Seane said of the pope’s latest comments: “The intention is very important here because it is to safeguard one from viruses such as the pandemic”, and not to sanction birth control.

During a visit to Africa last year, the pope said condoms are not the answer to the AIDS epidemic and even said distributing condoms “increases the problem”. But in comments made public last weekend, he said using condoms could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection”. The pope said there may be a basis for condom use, like “when a male prostitute uses a condom”.

A relaxing of blanket opposition to condoms could have a big impact in Africa, the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic church. Nearly 20% of the continent’s one-billion people are Catholic.

Caroline Nenguke of the Treatment Action Campaign, an advocacy group for people with HIV, said the pope’s words could change perceptions on condoms and therefore save lives.

“He has a wide following and there are some people who take his word as gospel truth,” said Nenguke, whose group is based in Cape Town, South Africa. “If condom use has more credibility, then more people will use condoms and therefore infection rates will reduce.”

Pope’s new stance embraced
Sando Delaney-Kailie, a Catholic and the director of the Aids program for the Liberia National Red Cross, said the use of condoms would reduce the level of HIV transmission in male prostitutes.

“The Catholic Church preaches and encourages abstinence, but people are still engaged in sex, so the pope is right to say what he said,” she said.

Many others embraced the pope’s new stance.

Melrosa Williams, a churchgoer in Sierra Leone, said: “I support what the pope has said 100% since prevention is better than a cure.”

The pope sought to “kick-start a debate” when he said some condom use may be justified, Vatican insiders said on Monday.

In Nigeria, Charles Oluwarotimi, who works in the financial field, indicated that he sees the pope’s statements as sanctioning condom use in other risky situations.

“I think it’s good as a lifesaving device, especially for married couples when one of them has HIV and they want to continue the marriage,” Oluwarotimi said. “It is also good for the youths who still indulge in sins.”

But some church leaders in Uganda—which has seen a wave of anti-gay sentiment and attacks—said the pope shouldn’t be granting any recognition or encouragement to homosexuals.

Reverend Venicious Reeves, a Pentecostal preacher in Monrovia, Liberia, also disagreed with the pope’s position.

“The pope should instead encourage people he classifies as male prostitutes to get out of prostitution and live in morality,” said Reeves.—Sapa-AP

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