Cameroon, Mar 19 – Pope Benedict XVI’s entourage sought to defuse an international outcry over his denunciation of the use of condoms against AIDS as his remarks overshadowed his first trip to Africa.,
Benedict focused on the need to defend the poor on the second day of his visit to Cameroon, but controversy raged over his comments the previous day that condoms were aggravating the AIDS epidemic.
Activists and some governments condemned the pope’s statement, which was denounced as counter-productive and even irresponsible while he visits the continent that contains two-thirds of the world’s AIDS cases.
In response, Spain said it will send one million condoms to Africa to fight the spread of AIDS.
"The objective is to advance the prevention of this epidemic, which affects 33 million people all over the world, two-thirds of them in Africa," the health ministry said in a statement.
"Condoms have been demonstrated to be a necessary element in prevention policies and an efficient barrier against the virus, according to laboratory studies," it added.
The French foreign ministry called it a "threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life," while the Dutch development minister said it was "extremely harmful" and that "the pope is making matters worse."
The pope began his first visit as pontiff to the AIDS-ravaged continent on Tuesday, telling reporters that AIDS was a tragedy "that 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," he added.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi defended the pope’s comments in a press conference in Yaounde Wednesday, saying Benedict merely reaffirmed the official Church position which puts "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," Lombardi said.
The Church believes that "to develop an ideology of confidence in the condom is not a correct position" because it fails to put the accent on "a sense of responsibility," he said.
According to the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), more than five percent of adults among Cameroon’s estimated 18.9 million people suffer from the disease, based on 2007 figures.
Alain Fogue, a spokesman for MOCPAT, a group campaigning for access to treatment for sufferers, said in Yaounde that the 81-year-old pontiff was out of touch with the modern world.
"Is the pope living in the 21st century?" asked Fogue. "The people will not follow what the pope is saying. He lives in Heaven and we are on Earth."
"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.
On Wednesday, the pope lunched and rested at the city’s papal nunciature before heading to the Basilica of Mary Queen of Apostles in the afternoon for a service attended by 4,000 people with thousands more standing outside in the rain.
Addressing the clergy, he told priests that they should think of their role "as a servant, a humble instrument pointing to Christ" and urged them to lead a "lifestyle" in Christ’s image, "chaste, humble and obediant."
Benedict will celebrate a giant open-air mass at Yaounde’s Amadou Ahidjo stadium on Thursday morning, the centrepiece of his visit to Cameroon.
In his address to bishops on Wednesday, Benedict reminded them that "the bishop’s mission leads him to be a defender of the rights of the poor, to call forth and encourage the exercise of charity."
He also called on the Church in Cameroon "to defend vigorously the essential values of the African family, and to give high priority to its thorough evangelisation."