WASHINGTON - US rights advocates and a Roman Catholic group on Wednesday condemned Pope Benedict XVI for saying condom use does little to help fight AIDS as he began a trip to Africa, the continent hardest hit by the deadly viral illness.
The pope's comment was "irresponsible and dangerous", said Jon O'Brien, head of Catholics for Choice, adding that "few Catholics and even fewer medical personnel agree with his stance."
"Several bishops in Africa, including Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg in South Africa, have been outspoken in their support of the use of condoms," O'Brien said.
Benedict, the head of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, said Tuesday as he flew to Cameroon on his first papal visit to Africa that condoms were not a solution to fighting AIDS and "even aggravate the problems."
The solution lies in a "spiritual and human awakening" and "friendship for those who suffer," said Benedict, who will also visit Angola during his weeklong trip.
"On a continent where millions of people are infected with HIV, it is morally reprehensible to spread such blatant falsehoods," said Harry Knox, head of the religion and faith program at Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for equal rights for the gay, lesbian and transgender communities.
"The pope’s rejection of scientifically proven prevention methods is forcing Catholics in Africa to choose between their faith and the health of their entire community," Knox said.
Church doctrine opposes the use of contraceptives, including condoms, which in addition to preventing unwanted pregnancies are an effective barrier to HIV/AIDS.
No one was immediately available for comment at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
O'Brien of Catholics for Choice said condoms were "a critical part of the campaign to reduce the impact of the virus.
Citing a recent poll commissioned by Catholics for Choice in Ghana, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines and United States, O'Brien said Catholics overwhelmingly support condom use.
Ninety percent of Catholics in Mexico, 86 percent in Ireland, 79 percent in the United States, 77 percent in the Philippines and 59 percent in Ghana agreed with a statement in the poll that "using condoms is prolife because it helps save lives by preventing the spread of AIDS."