YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Condoms are not the answer to Africa's fight against HIV, Pope Benedict XVI said Tuesday as he began a weeklong trip to the continent. It was the pope's first explicit statement on an issue that has divided even clergy working with AIDS patients.
Benedict arrived in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, on Tuesday afternoon, greeted by a crowd of flag-waving faithful and snapping cameras. The visit is his first pilgrimage as pontiff to Africa.
In his four years as pope, Benedict had never directly addressed condom use, although his position is not new. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, often said that sexual abstinence — not condoms — was the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.
Benedict also said the Roman Catholic Church was at the forefront of the battle against AIDS.
"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane heading to Yaounde. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."
The pope said a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease.
The Roman 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.
22 million infected with HIV
About 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV, according to UNAIDS. In 2007, three-quarters of all AIDS deaths worldwide were there, as well as two-thirds of all people living with HIV.
Rebecca Hodes with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa said if the pope was serious about preventing new HIV infections, he would focus on promoting wide access to condoms and spreading information on how best to use them.
"Instead, his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans," said Hodes, head of policy, communication and research for the organization.
Hodes said the pope was right that condoms are not the sole solution to Africa's AIDS epidemic, but added they are one of the very few proven measures to prevent HIV infections.
Even some priests and nuns working with those living with HIV/AIDS question the church's opposition to condoms amid the pandemic ravaging Africa. Ordinary Africans do as well.
"Talking about the nonuse of condoms is out of place. We need condoms to protect ourselves against diseases and AIDS," teacher Narcisse Takou said Tuesday in Yaounde.
Benedict's African trip this week will also take him to Angola.
A crowd of photographers and cameras flashed as Benedict stepped off the plane in Yaounde, where the temperature was 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 Celsius) with high humidity.
The pope was greeted by Cameroon's President Paul Biya, who has ruled since 1982 and whose government has been accused by Amnesty International of abuses in crushing political opponents.
The pope made no specific reference to the situation in Cameroon, but he did say in general remarks on Africa that "a Christian can never remain silent" in the face of violence, poverty, hunger, corruption or abuse of power.
"The saving message of the Gospel needs to be proclaimed loud and clear so that the light of Christ can shine into the darkness of people's lives," Benedict said as the president and other political leaders looked on.
Thousands of people lined the road to watch the pope's motorcade drive into Yaounde, standing shoulder to shoulder in red dirt fields or under palm trees to escape the punishing sun.
Africa is the fastest-growing region for the Catholic church, though it competes with Islam and evangelical churches.
'Solidarity' with Africa
The pope also said Tuesday he intends to make an appeal for "international solidarity" for Africa in the face of the global economic downturn. He said while the church does not propose specific economic solutions, it can give "spiritual and moral" suggestions.
He described the current crisis as the result of "a deficit of ethics in economic structures."
"It is here that the church can make a contribution," he said.
On the plane, Benedict also dismissed the notion that he was facing increasing opposition and isolation within the church, particularly after an outreach to ultraconservatives that led to his lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop.
"The myth of my solitude makes me laugh," the pope said, adding that he has a network of friends and aides whom he sees every day.
In a letter to Catholic bishops last week, the pope made an unusual public acknowledgment of Vatican mistakes and turmoil in his church over the rehabilitation of Bishop Richard Williamson.
While acknowledging mistakes were made in handling the Williamson affair, Benedict said he was saddened that he was criticized "with open hostility" even by those who should have known better.
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