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DAKAR (Reuters) - Pope Benedict's qualified backing of condom use to help prevent AIDS marks a small breakthrough for efforts to fight the scourge in Africa, giving health workers and clergy more scope to broach a still-taboo subject.
News of the pontiff's comments in a book came days before a U.N. report on Tuesday showed that even Africa was making inroads into the epidemic, with a fall in infection rates over the past decade coinciding with greater availability of condoms.
"It does open the opportunity for discussion," Paul De Lay, Deputy Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said of the pope's statement, citing past confusion among many African Catholics over the Church's approach to AIDS.
Despite recent progress, the AIDS-causing virus HIV still afflicts 22.5 million Africans -- two-thirds of the world total.
In excerpts of a book published in the Vatican newspaper at the weekend, the pope cites the use of condoms by male prostitutes to protect clients from HIV as "a first step towards moralisation," while stressing it was still not the best approach.
Even that cautious formula brought the pope a step closer to the pragmatic message preached by many priests in Africa, who struggled to grasp his comment during a 2009 tour of Africa that condoms could actually worsen the spread of AIDS.
"The Pope's 2009 declaration created an uproar and confused believers and we found a certain resistance to accept condoms -- it was very difficult," said Eugide Bashombana, HIV Officer for aid group Oxfam in Democratic Republic of Congo.
"These comments are positive in the sense that they correct the message he gave last year. Now we need to really spread the word right into the villages," Bashombana said of the ex-Belgian colony where Catholics make up around half the population and which has an estimated HIV infection rate of 4.3 percent.
Senior Catholics will watch closely how the pope's comments go down in Africa, where the church is growing faster than on any other continent and where there is frequent speculation the next pontiff could be black.
Among the large Catholic minority in Kenya, where infection rates peaked at around 10 percent in the 1990s, the pope's comments were welcomed by many followers.
"As the world is changing and things are also changing every day, I think the use of condoms is a right thing at the moment for the young generation," businessman Alfred Nalango told Reuters outside the Holy Family Basilica church in Nairobi.
De Lay believed the relaxation of the official line could encourage priests who for years have tacitly approved condom use, for example to protect a women during sex with her HIV-positive husband.
"They will not preach condoms from the pulpits but they will not say anything against them," said De Lay, "It is not in spite of the pope. It is just a recognition that millions are dying."
Victor Lakay, deputy chairman of South Africa's AIDS Treatment Action Campaign, echoed secular thought in judging the pope's comment "a step in the right direction but not enough", and urging more explicit backing of condom use.
Within the Catholic Church in Africa, there is wide relief over even a nuanced relaxation of a Church position on AIDS that is still based largely on sexual abstinence.
"Sincerely, this is not realistic," said a clergyman in Cameroon, one of the countries on the controversial 2009 tour.
"When we understand the nature of mankind, we will know that it is impossible to prevent people from sexual relations. It is very important the Pope finally understood this," he said.
UNAIDS reported on Tuesday that between 1999 and 2009, the global incidence of HIV infection fell by 19 percent and the decline in 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa exceeded 25 percent.
The adoption of safer sexual practices by the young and a big rise in the availability of condoms in places of need were factors contributing to the fall, the report said.
Activists warn there is a long way to go, particularly in Africa where some men are reluctant to use condoms for cultural rather than religious reasons.
South African President Jacob Zuma launched a new drive to combat AIDS last year, but dismayed safe sex campaigners with revelations he fathered a child out of wedlock and an admission that he had had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman.
The pope's comments are "a step in the right direction for the health of Africa," said Sebastien Barraud of Marie Stopes Sierra Leone, the local branch of the international sexual health group. "But it is a very small step on the long walk to eradicating HIV," he added.