YAOUNDE, Cameroon, March 17 -- Condoms are not the answer to Africa's fight against HIV, Pope Benedict XVI said Tuesday as he began a week-long trip to the continent. It was the pope's first explicit statement on an issue that has divided even clergy working with AIDS patients.
Benedict arrived in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, on Tuesday afternoon, greeted by a crowd of flag-waving faithful and snapping cameras. The visit is his first pilgrimage as pontiff to Africa.
In his four years as pope, Benedict had never directly addressed condom use, although his position is not new. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, often said that sexual abstinence -- not condoms -- was the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.
Benedict also said the Roman Catholic Church was at the forefront of the battle against AIDS.
"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters aboard the plane heading to Yaounde. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."
The pope said a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease.
The Roman 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.
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 was serious about preventing new HIV infections, he would 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, head of policy, communication and research for the organization.
Even some priests and nuns working with those living with HIV/AIDS question the church's opposition to condoms amid the pandemic ravaging Africa. Many Africans do, as well.
"Talking about the non-use of condoms is out of place. We need condoms to protect ourselves against diseases and AIDS," teacher Narcisse Takou said Tuesday in Yaounde.
On his arrival in Yaounde, the pope was greeted by Cameroon's President Paul Biya, who has ruled since 1982 and whose government has been accused of abuses in crushing political opponents.
The pope made no specific reference to the situation in Cameroon but said in general remarks on Africa that "a Christian can never remain silent" in the face of violence, poverty, hunger, corruption or abuse of power.
"The saving message of the Gospel needs to be proclaimed loud and clear so that the light of Christ can shine into the darkness of people's lives," Benedict said as the president and other political leaders looked on.
Benedict's African trip this week will also take him to Angola.