Catholic bishop in AIDS-affected Papua New Guinea defies Vatican over condom use

Daru-Kiunga , Papua New Guinea - A Catholic bishop working to combat an AIDS epidemic ravaging the impoverished Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea has openly questioned the Vatican's ban on condom usage.

Bishop Gilles Cote, a French-Canadian who heads the Daru-Kiunga diocese in the country's Western Province, said he was in favor of governments providing condoms to communities where extramarital sex and multiple sex partners are commonplace.

The Catholic Church, however, has repeatedly rebuffed calls for it to endorse the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS and endorses abstinence as the best way to combat the spread of the disease.

But Cote said he was not in conflict with the Vatican as papal teaching also includes the law: "You should not kill."

"If you are infected and you have sex then you don't protect yourself, you will give the sickness to the other one," he said Tuesday. "So there's a moral responsibility that they are protected."

Churches play an important role in providing humanitarian assistance to Papua New Guinea, a half-island nation immediately north of Australia where polygamous marriages are common and education about sexually transmitted diseases is sparse.

The United Nations estimates that around 1.7 percent of Papua New Guinea's population -- or 47,000 people -- are infected with HIV or AIDS -- with heterosexual transmission the main cause.

Some government and health officials have called on church leaders to take a more active role in fighting the spread of HIV.

Cote said his diocese did not promote the use of condoms, but said it was acceptable for local governments to do so.

"We don't spread them to everybody and distribute them. If the government wants to do it, OK," he said.

Earlier this month, Cabinet minister Puka Temu told an HIV prevention summit in the capital Port Moresby that church groups should put aside their "religious and moral biases" and give 100 percent support to condom use.

His call sparked an angry reply from church leaders, including Bishop Francesco Sarego, President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference in Papua New Guinea.

"The best defense against HIV is found among the families of our country," he said last week. "Faithfulness in marriage protects families from destruction."

Anglican Bishop of Port Moresby Peter Fox said his church supported condom use but Temu's statement was "unfortunate" because it did not recognize the diversity of views among churches.