His own conscience is the last resort

The cliche of the "AIDS continent" has clung to Africa for years. Nowhere else in the world is the deadly virus spreading so rapidly. According to critics, the Catholic Church with its rigid ban on condoms also contributes to this. They therefore welcome the much-noticed remarks of Pope Benedict XVI. On possible exceptions. Many African Catholics themselves, however, doubt a decline in new HIV infections – and even consider the statements of the church leader to be bold and misinterpreted.

Malawi is often overlooked. The small country with the scarcely 15.5 million inhabitants seems neither exciting nor attractive – no vacation paradise like neighboring Tanzania and no raw material supplier like Zambia. It only makes the headlines when U.S. pop star Madonna adopts an orphan and tries to move the Western world to tears. But Malawi clings to yet another cliche: It is "AIDS country". How many people are actually infected can no more be said than for the rest of the continent. Estimates speak of twelve percent of all adults; more than one million children are said to be AIDS orphans by now.

But George Buleya, secretary general of the Malawi Bishops' Conference, is convinced that even condoms will not change the situation. That's why he also wants to clarify the Pope's statements. "The Catholic Church has by no means done an about-face," the daily Nyasa Times quotes him as saying. Pope's statement is "not a free pass for condoms". Instead, she says, the continent should continue to rely on the so-called ABC strategy. A stands for abstinence, B for be faithful – and only in third place comes the C for condom.

Clear words also from the neighboring country: "Tanzania is sticking to its anti-condom line," says Methodius Kilaini, auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Bukoba on Lake Victoria. Relaxation here seems unthinkable. In any case, the Pope's statement to tolerate condoms for male prostitutes has been misinterpreted, he said
– especially by HIV activists. They had waited a long time for a change of course and, according to the daily newspaper "The Citizen," now let speculation flourish.

Several non-governmental organizations and human rights activists, meanwhile, welcome the piecemeal opening. One of them is David Kamau, head of the Kenyan movement for better treatment conditions for HIV and AIDS patients. The pope has "accepted a piece of reality," he told Kenyan television. The principle of abstinence simply doesn't always work, he said. If the church fails to convince its members of values such as morality and abstinence, then it is a consistent step to allow the use of condoms, he said.

At any rate, South Africans seem to be asked to do this at almost every turn. Vending machines with free condoms hang and stand everywhere, especially in public buildings in the major cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health had to announce in the middle of the month that almost every third pregnant woman had tested HIV-positive. The study is considered representative; about 34.000 women took part.

The fates, human misery, suffering and stigmatization behind such figures are well known to Sister Alison Munro, the HIV and AIDS Officer of the South African Bishops' Conference. However, the religious does not want to comment directly on the pope's statement. "Together with our partner organizations, we rely on accurate information about Catholic teaching," she emphasizes. These included abstinence before and fidelity during marriage. But there also needs to be guidance on condom use for those who may have unprotected sex and become infected, he said. The last resort? This is one's own conscience: "On this basis, everyone must ultimately make the decision themselves," says Sister Alison.

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