YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Pope Benedict XVI said condoms are not the answer to the AIDS epidemic in Africa and can make the problem worse, setting off criticism Tuesday as he began a weeklong trip to the continent where about 22 million people are living with HIV.
Benedict's first statement on an issue that has divided even Catholic clergy working with AIDS patients came hours before he arrived in Cameroon's capital — greeted by thousands of flag-waving faithful who stood in red dirt fields and jammed downtown streets for a glimpse of the pontiff's motorcade.
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 Alitalia 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, as he answered questions submitted in advance by reporters traveling on the plane. His response was presumably also prepared in advance.
Rebecca Hodes with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa said if the pope is serious about preventing HIV infections, he should focus on promoting wide access to condoms and spreading information on how to use them.
Even some priests and nuns working with those infected with the AIDS virus question the church's opposition to condoms amid the pandemic ravaging Africa. Ordinary Africans do as well.
"Talking about the nonuse of condoms is out of place. We need condoms to protect ourselves against diseases and AIDS," teacher Narcisse Takou said in Yaounde.
Stanley Obale Okpu, a civil servant working in the ministry of urban development in Cameroon, said: "What the pope says is an ideal for the Catholic church. But he needs to look at the realities on the ground."