NAIROBI, Kenya – From clerics to AIDS activists, Africans applauded Pope Benedict XVI's suggestion that condoms could be used in limited situations to protect partners — a shift that could make a dramatic impact in a continent that is both battling an HIV pandemic and is the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic church.
"I say hurrah for Pope Benedict," exclaimed Linda-Gail Bekker, chief executive of South Africa's Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. She said the pope's statement may prompt many people to "adopt a simple lifestyle strategy to protect themselves."
In comments made public last weekend, the pope said condoms could be morally justified in some cases, such as with male prostitutes to prevent the spread of HIV. The Vatican went even further on Tuesday, saying the comments also apply to women. About 54 percent of those infected with HIV in Africa are women.
Reacting to the expanded statement, a senior official with the United Nations AIDS agency said: "I think it will have a very positive impact ... Catholics consider the Pope infallible. He cannot err in what he's teaching. That way, they will now be able to use condoms, and I can see further decline in the AIDS epidemic."
Sheila Tlou spoke with The Associated Press during a meeting Tuesday in Johannesburg in which UNAIDS announced a nearly 20 percent drop in new HIV infections around the world over the past decade — largely due to increased condom use. Tlou, the eastern and southern Africa regional director for UNAIDS and a former Botswana health minister, said other churches should follow the pope's lead.
More than 20 million people across Africa are infected with HIV — more than the rest of the world combined.
In Sierra Leone, the director of the National AIDS Secretariat predicted condom use would now increase, lowering the number of new infections.
"Once the pope has made a pronouncement, his priests will be in the forefront in advocating for their perceived use of condoms," said the official, Dr. Brima Kargbo.
Sello Hatang, spokesman for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, applauded the pope Monday, saying "condom use is essential in the fight against HIV.
While some church leaders in Africa disagreed with the new approach and others said they are waiting for an official church communique, Bishop Valentine Seane, the leader of Botswana's 70,000 Catholics, said he is open to the idea of condom use.
"The lesser evil is to use available means of protection," Seane told AP.
The Catholic Church rejects the use of condoms as part of its overall teaching against artificial contraception. Senior Vatican officials have advocated fidelity in marriage and abstinence from premarital sex as key weapons in the fight against AIDS.
Seane said of the pope's latest comments: "The intention is very important here because it is to safeguard one from viruses such as the pandemic," and not to sanction birth control.
During a visit to Africa last year, the pope said condoms are not the answer to the AIDS epidemic and even declared that distributing condoms "increases the problem." But in comments made public last weekend, he said using condoms could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection."
This could have a big effect in Africa, where nearly 20 percent of the continent's 1 billion people are Catholic.
Caroline Nenguke of the Treatment Action Campaign, an advocacy group for people with HIV, said more people will now accept the use of condoms, saving lives.
"He has a wide following and there are some people who take his word as gospel truth," said Nenguke, whose group is based in Cape Town, South Africa. "If condom use has more credibility, then more people will use condoms and therefore infection rates will reduce."
Many others embraced the pope's new stance.
Melrosa Williams, a churchgoer in Sierra Leone, said: "I support what the pope has said 100 percent since prevention is better than a cure."
The pope sought to "kick-start a debate" when he said some condom use may be justified, Vatican insiders said on Monday. For many, there is little to debate.
In Nigeria, Charles Oluwarotimi, who works in the financial field, interpreted the pope's statements as sanctioning condom use in many risky situations, even before the Vatican amplified the remarks.
"I think it's good as a lifesaving device, especially for married couples when one of them has HIV and they want to continue the marriage," Oluwarotimi said. "It is also good for the youths who still indulge in sins."
But Rev. Venicious Reeves, a Pentecostal preacher in Monrovia, Liberia, disagreed with the pope's statement about condoms and male prostitutes.
"The pope should instead encourage people he classifies as male prostitutes to get out of prostitution and live in morality," said Reeves.
Associated Press reporters across Africa contributed to this report. Gross reported from Johannesburg, South Africa.