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Pope's comments on condoms draw praise and criticism

Development groups hope Pope Benedict's comments that some condom use may be justified will pave the way for broader dialogue on sexual health in the countries hit hardest by HIV/AIDS, but say he could go further.

Pope Benedict giving a public blessing

The Vatican has traditionally opposed all condom use

Major health and development organizations have hailed Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments that using condoms may be justified "in certain cases" to help prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The remarks, which appear to soften the Catholic Church's famously hard-line views on condoms, were made by the pope during interviews with German journalist Peter Seewald, and are to be published in Seewald's new book, "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times." The Vatican newspaper has published excerpts of the book ahead of its release on Tuesday.

World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan has welcomed the pope's comments, calling them "good news and a good beginning for us," according to news agency AFP.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has described Benedict's remarks as "a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican" to address the spread of HIV, which can be transmitted through unprotected sex.

UNAIDS is one of many development organizations devoted to combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is more widespread in Africa than in any other part of the world.

A step forward - not a leap

Many development organization representatives are only cautiously optimistic, however. In his comments, Benedict used male prostitutes as an example of a group for whom the use of condoms could be justified "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection." But according to Paul De Lay, UNAIDS' Deputy Executive Director, this example only affirms the Vatican’s stance against condoms as a method of contraception.

"The example of the male prostitute was probably carefully chosen because it doesn't relate to the issue of procreation," De Lay told Deutsche Welle. "But we still need to address the issue of heterosexual condom use, which is the main AIDS issue in Africa."

An AIDS patient in Soweto, South Africa

Southern Africa is the center of the world AIDS epidemic

What is more, prostitution itself is also a largely heterosexual issue in African countries, where so-called "transactional sex" - sex in exchange for basic necessities such as food - is a common practice, often taking place between "older men and young women," De Lay said.

Ute Stallmeister, spokesperson for the German Foundation for World Population (DSW), said the pope's remarks "did not go far enough," pointing out that "the pope's statements didn't address the topic of the role of condoms in family planning."

Stallmeister said that condoms alone will not solve Africa's AIDS problem, and that she does not expect dramatic improvements in the global HIV/AIDS rate due to the pope's more relaxed stance on condom use.

"Condoms are important, but not sufficient - the pope is actually right on this point," she said. "Sexual education is far more important. How will a woman get a man to wear a condom if she is not educated on the topic herself?"

'Broader dialogue' expected

UNAIDS' De Lay said the value of the pope's comments lies in their potential to open up debate with the Vatican over sexual health.

"We have been in dialogue with the Catholic Church for a long time now, and the condom issue has always been a huge obstacle for us," said De Lay. "The new position will help us to engage in a broader dialogue."

According to Stallmeister, local Church representatives in the countries where her organization operates - Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda - have already been acknowledging the benefits of condom use for a long time, despite officially upholding the Vatican's teachings.

"While they don't participate in distributing condoms, they tolerate us doing it," said Stallmeister. "The AIDS problem there is so big that many people already realize that something needs to be done. In that regard, I don't think the pope's statement will cause great changes."

Condoms are still key

A red condom

Condoms are the best way of preventing disease transmission during sex

Southern Africa is the center of the global AIDS epidemic, with up to 30 percent of the adult population infected in parts of countries including Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.

Hans Stehling, a spokesman for the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), a government-owned organization specializing in technical cooperation for sustainable development, told Deutsche Welle that the provision of condoms and the promotion of their use is an important part of fighting AIDS.

"Focusing exclusively on fidelity and abstinence does not acknowledge the socially and culturally complex life circumstances that do not always allow people to be monogamous and abstinent," said Stehling. "For these people, condoms are the best protection."

De Lay agreed that condoms are the best way of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases during sexual intercourse.

"We have seen condom use has doubled in the last years in some of the most affected countries and we have seen a decline in new infections at the same time," he said. "So we have good evidence for condoms' positive role in the AIDS epidemic."

Author: Eva Wutke

Editor: Sophie Tarr

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