- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON (AP) - Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Cameroon to start his first visit to Africa as pontiff.

The pope’s Alitalia plane touched down in Yaounde at around 1500 GMT on Tuesday. It had departed hours earlier from a Rome airport.

Speaking aboard the plane that took him to Cameroon’s capital, the pope touched on Africa’s AIDS pandemic, saying that condoms were not the answer in the continent’s fight against HIV.

The seven-day pilgrimage will also include Angola and is Benedict’s first trip as pontiff to Africa, the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic Church.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) _ Pope Benedict XVI said on his way to Africa Tuesday that condoms were not the answer in the continent’s fight against HIV, his first explicit statement on an issue that has divided even clergy working with AIDS patients.

Benedict had never directly addressed condom use. He has said that the Roman Catholic Church is in the forefront of the battle against AIDS. The Vatican encourages sexual abstinence to fight the spread of the disease.

“You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane headed to Yaounde, Cameroon, where he will begin a seven-day pilgrimage on the continent. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

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 is serious about preventing new HIV infections, he will 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, director of policy, communication and research for the action campaign.

While she said the pope is correct that condoms are not the sole solution to Africa’s AIDS epidemic, she said they are one of the very few HIV prevention mechanisms proven to work.

Even some priests and nuns working with those living with HIV/AIDS question the church’s opposition to condoms amid the pandemic ravaging Africa.

Benedict’s first papal trip to Africa this week will take him to Cameroon and Angola. Africa is the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic Church, though it competes with Islam and evangelical churches.

The pope also said Tuesday that he intends to make an appeal for “international solidarity” for Africa in the face of the global economic downturn.

He said that while the church does not propose specific economic solutions, it can give “spiritual and moral” suggestions.

Describing the current crisis as the consequence of “a deficit of ethics in economic structures,” the pope said: “It is here that the church can make a contribution.”

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 can count on a network of friends and aides whom he sees every day.

In a letter to Catholic bishops released 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 affair, Benedict said he was saddened that he was criticized “with open hostility” even by those who should have known better.

___

Associated Press Writer Krista Larson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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