AIDS campaigners welcome pope condom u-turn

21st November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Campaigners against the spread of AIDS welcomed a u-turn by Pope Benedict XVI on the use of condoms Sunday, saying it marked a historic break with the past which would save lives.

In a series of interviews to appear in a book published this week, Benedict said that while the use of condoms should not be seen as a "moral solution", he stepped back from the Vatican's blanket ban on all forms of contraception.

"In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality," said the head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.

Benedict sparked an international outcry in March 2009 on a visit to AIDS-ravaged Africa when he told reporters that the distribution of condoms could even aggravate the pandemic.

To illustrate his apparent shift in position, Benedict offered the example of a male prostitute using a condom.

"There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be ... a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes," Benedict was quoted as saying in the new book.

"But it is not the proper way to deal with the horror of HIV infection."

Benedict reiterated that condom use alone would not solve the problem of HIV/AIDS. "More must happen," he said.

"Becoming simply fixated on the issue of condoms makes sexuality more banal and exactly this is the reason why so many people no longer find sexuality to be an expression of their love, but a type of self-administered drug."

While some campaigners said that the pope's comments did not go anywhere near far enough, there was a general consensus that they would help in the fight against AIDS.

The head of the UN agency leading the international campaign against AIDS said Benedict's comments were a "significant and positive step forward".

"This move recognizes that responsible sexual behaviour and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention," UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe said in a statement.

Sidibe said he had held far reaching discussions with Vatican on HIV prevention issues in 2009.

"Together we can build a world with zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths," he added.

Franco Grillini, president of Italian gay rights group Arcigay, said the Vatican appeared to now acknowledge the harm caused by its previous stance.

"Finally! If the pope recognises, even if it's only in certain circumstances, the importance of using condoms, it means that he recognises having made mistakes in the past," said Grillini.

Daniele Capezzone, a spokesman for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, hailed what he called "a wise and sensible pronouncement".

"This seems to me to be both historic and positive," he added.

In France, one of the leaders of the Christians and AIDS association, also said it was a highly significant break with the past.

"The breach is now open and I totally accept what he has said," Gerard Guerin told AFP.

"Condoms must be allowed to halt the virus. They are not simply useful, they must be used."

In South Africa, where an estimated 5.7 million of the 48 million population are HIV positive, there was also a cautious welcome from the main anti-AIDS lobby but a warning that the pope needed to be much more unequivocal.

While calling his comments "a step in the right direction", Vuyiseka Dubula, general secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, said they "still fall below what we expect" from the Church.

"We still don't agree with condom use only in certain circumstances. We think that the pope needs to do much better than that because his message can be misunderstood by his followers," said Dubula.

Veteran British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell welcomed the move but said it did not go far enough.

"The pope's comments offer a scintilla of hope that the Church's dogma are open to change," he told Sky News.

"It has opened the possibility of male prostitutes using condoms as an act of responsibility but why cannot a husband and wife use a condom to protect themselves against the risk of infection?"

© 2010 AFP

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