/ 5 April 2005

Aids activists describe pope as an ‘obstacle’

Aids activists in Africa describe the late Pope John Paul II’s fierce opposition to the use of condoms as a major obstacle in the battle against Aids in Africa, where the disease killed 2,3-million people in 2004.

”We think that his position was a big obstacle in slowing the spread of Aids in Africa, even though his impact is difficult to measure on the ground,” said a spokesperson for the South African lobby group Treatment Action Campaign, Nathan Geffen.

Geffen said he hoped ”the new pope will have an attitude much more progressive and less conservative regarding the utilisation of condoms and practise of contraception”.

Father Laurent Charles Boyomo Assala, teacher at the Central African Catholic university, acknowledged that in the case of Aids in Cameroon, ”the prescriptions [of the pope] have sometimes been left to the liberal interpretation of the churches”.

In Gabon, the national anti-Aids programme — after much consultation — succeeded in obtaining the approval of Christian and Muslim communities for HIV-positive couples to use condoms, a position adopted in February in Yaounde by African bishops.

The co-ordinator of the United Nations Aids program in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pierre Somse, said the question of condom use was irrelevant in that country because they simply aren’t available, especially in rural areas where the virus is most prevalent.

”The real question is about the implementation of a national health policy in a country where only 2% of some 400 000 [Aids] patients have access to anti-retroviral treatments,” Somse said.

In the face of the spread of Aids in Africa — with 3,1-million people contracting the virus in 2004 — many hope that the new pope will change the teachings of the church on the question of the use of condoms.

”We understand the position of the church, but you have to face reality,” said Attaher Maiga, a member of the national anti-Aids council in Mali. ”There isn’t an alternative, the use of condoms is one of the solutions to fight the spread of HIV.”

In his edicts, the late pontiff fought tirelessly against condoms and in a landmark message in 1988 said that use of contraception was ”intrinsically illicit”.

”No personal or social circumstances could ever, can now, or will ever, render such an act lawful in itself,” he said.

Africa is home to nearly two-thirds of all the estimated 40-million people living with HIV/Aids in the world.

Aids has driven life expectancy below 40 years in nine African countries: Botswana, the Central African Republic, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. — Sapa-AFP