International outcry at Pope's denunciation of condom use

The French foreign ministry has said it is deeply concerned about the effects of Pope Benedict XVI's claim that condoms were worsening the AIDS epidemic. Other counties and organisations have also voiced surprise at the pope's comments.


Pope Benedict XVI's denunciation of condom use to prevent the spread of HIV sparked an international outcry on Wednesday as he toured Africa, the continent hardest hit by the disease.

The pope told reporters on his plane as he headed to Cameroon on Tuesday that AIDS "cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems."

The solution lies in a "spiritual and human awakening" and "friendship for those who suffer," said the pope, who will also visit Angola during the week-long trip.

The church has long banned the use of condoms and other contraceptives, despite a concensus among scientists and health experts that consistent and correct use of condoms substantially reduces the spread of HIV.

Michel Kazatchkine, the head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, demanded that the pope retract the statement, saying "these remarks are unacceptable."

"It's a denial of the epidemic. And to make these remarks on a continent that unfortunately is a continent where 70 percent of the people who have AIDS die, is absolutely unbelievable," he told France Inter radio.

The French and Belgian governments both expressed concern over the pope's remarks, which they said could harm public health campaigns.

"France voices extremely sharp concern over the consequences of Benedict XVI's comments," foreign ministry Eric Chevallier told reporters.

"While it is not up to us to pass judgment on Church doctrine, we consider that such comments are a threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life," he said.

Belgium's health ministry said in a statement that the minister Laurette Onkelinx "was stupified to learn of the remarks."

"His remarks could destroy years of prevention and awareness, and endanger many human lives," it warned.

The New York Times said in an editorial that the pope was "grievously wrong."

"Health authorities consider condoms a valuable component of any well-rounded programme to prevent the spread of AIDS. It seems irresponsible to blame condoms for making the epidemic worse," it said.

AIDS activists around the world also denounced the pope's remarks, warning they could harm, efforts to rein in the disease that has infected 22 million people in Africa -- two thirds of the global caseload.

"Is the pope living in the 21st century?" asked Alain Fogue, a spokesman for MOCPAT, a group in Cameroon campaigning for access to treatment for sufferers.

"To claim that condoms 'aggravate' the problem of AIDS goes totally against all the efforts made by the Cameroonian government and other actors implicated in the struggle against AIDS in Cameroon," Fogue added.

The pope's message only confuses the people about how to prevent the spread of HIV, especially in countries with large Catholic communities, said Judith Melby, an Africa specialist at the Christian Aid charity in Britain.

"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," she said.

"Our policy is that abstinence is an important part of the package, but abstinence is not the only thing that is going to prevent HIV transmision."

Most prevention campaigns include condoms as an important component, because the virus cannot pass through latex.

"The access to condoms is absolutely essential to combat HIV," Mohga Kamal-Yanni, an AIDS specialist for British charity Oxfam, told AFP.

"If we want to stop new infections which is happening among young people, we do need to use condoms, we need to expand the use of condoms, not to decrease it."

In India, where at least two million people have HIV, activists urged the pope to take a more pragmatic approach.

"A disease like HIV/AIDS that has no cure has to be prevented and condom usage is being advocated in this context. Condom use is critical in prevention," said Akhila Sivadas, who heads the Centre for Advocacy and Research, a prominent volunteer group.

"It is not being promoted as a lifestyle product. You need a pragmatic approach, you need to set aside all your queasiness and deal with it as a public health issue."

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