Pope Benedict XVI has said that handing out condoms is not the answer in the fight against HIV/Aids, as he makes his first visit to Africa as pontiff.
Speaking en route to Cameroon, he said distribution of condoms “increases the problem”. The Vatican urges abstinence.
The Pope will also visit Angola on his week-long trip, where thousands are expected to attend open-air masses.
According to Vatican figures, the number of Catholics in Africa has been rising steadily in recent years.
Baptised Catholics made up 17% of the African population in 2006, compared with 12% in 1978, the Vatican says.
Pope Benedict said on the eve of his trip that he wanted to wrap his arms around the entire continent, with “its painful wounds, its enormous potential and hopes”.
Speaking to reporters on his way to Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, the Pope said HIV/Aids was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem”.
The solution lies in a “spiritual and human awakening” and “friendship for those who suffer”, the AFP news agency quotes him as saying.
While in Africa, the pontiff is expected to talk to young people about the Aids epidemic and explain to them why the Catholic Church recommends sexual abstinence as the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.
He gave a similar message to African bishops who visited the Vatican in 2005, when he told them that abstinence and fidelity, not condoms, were the means to tackle the epidemic.
The BBC’s Caroline Duffield, in Cameroon, says people in Yaounde are energetically sweeping and cleaning everywhere in preparation for Pope Benedict’s visit.
The Pope will stay in Yaounde until Friday, where he will meet bishops from all over Africa who will be taking part in a meeting at the Vatican later this year to discuss the Church’s role in Africa.
In Angola, which is still recovering from 27 years of civil war, Pope Benedict will meet diplomats posted in Luanda and is expected to urge the international community not to abandon Africa.
The pontiff is also due to hold private talks with political leaders in the two countries, both of which have been accused of corruption and squandering revenues from natural resources.
Speaking to pilgrims in St Peter’s Square before setting out on his journey, the Pope said he wanted to reach out to the victims of hunger, disease, injustice, fratricidal conflicts and the violence afflicting adults and children alike in most parts of Africa.
The spread of HIV and Aids in Africa should be tackled through fidelity and abstinence and not by condoms, Pope Benedict XVI has said.
Speaking to African bishops at the Vatican, the Pope described HIV/Aids in Africa as a “cruel epidemic”.
But he told them: “The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids.”
More than 60% of the world’s 40m people with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa.
In South Africa alone, 600-1,000 people are thought to die every day because of Aids.
Pope Benedict, who was elected to succeed John Paul II in April, has already signalled that he will maintain a strictly traditional line on issues including abortion and homosexuality.
Before being elected pope, Benedict served as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office.
These were his first public comments on the issue of Aids/HIV and contraception since taking office.
He was addressing bishops from South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho, who had travelled to the Vatican for a routine papal audience.
Some Catholic clergymen have argued that the use of condoms to stem the spread of the disease would be a “lesser of two evils”.
The Pope warned that contraception was one of a host of trends contributing to a “breakdown in sexual morality”, and church teachings should not be ignored.
“It is of great concern that the fabric of African life, its very source of hope and stability, is threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a contraception mentality,” he added.
The virus “seriously threatens the economic and social stability of the continent,” the Pope said.
The UN estimates that without new initiatives and greater access to drugs, more than 80 million Africans may die from Aids by 2025 and HIV infections could reach 90 million, or 10% of the continent’s population.