Pope Benedict XVI arrives tomorrow in Benin for his second visit to Africa, and he'll be trying to avoid the huge global uproar that erupted over his comments about condoms on his last African trip.
The Pope was sharply criticized by European governments and AIDS experts in 2009 when, on his flight to Africa, he told journalists that the distribution of condoms was worsening the AIDS crisis.
"The problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms," he said. "On the contrary, they increase it."
The claim by the 84-year-old pontiff seemed to ignore scientific reality in a continent where millions have died from AIDS, and where condoms are widely seen as a key weapon in the battle against HIV transmission. They highlighted, in fact, how conservative religious ideology has hampered the distribution of condoms in many African countries – and how liberal church workers have ignored his edict, handing out condoms to prevent AIDS.
Even some Catholic priests in Africa disagreed with his comments. To refuse to give out condoms to people who have the AIDS virus, they said, is a violation of the commandment "Thou shalt not kill."
A year later, Pope Benedict seemed to climb down from his controversial comments. In a book interview disclosed last November, he suggested that condom use could be acceptable in certain cases. Condom use by prostitutes, he said, could be a "first step" towards a more responsible sexuality.
His views, however, have never been explained clearly, and many people will be watching closely to see if he says anything to clarify his stance during his three-day visit to Benin, a tiny country in West Africa.
The AIDS issue has certainly not disappeared since his visit to Cameroon and Angola in 2009. With an estimated 22 million Africans living with HIV today, sub-Saharan Africa is home to nearly 70 per cent of the world's HIV population.
In Benin's capital, Cotonou, officials have ordered a massive cleanup of the city in advance of the papal visit. Trucks have been banned from the downtown, and an entire market was destroyed by police because it was seen as disorderly.
Africa is a key priority for the Vatican because its Catholic population is the fastest-growing in the world. Over the past decade, Benin alone has seen its Catholic population rise by about 500,000. In many European countries, meanwhile, the number of Catholic worshippers is declining, so regions such as Africa could become increasingly crucial to the church.
In his Benin visit, Pope Benedict will release a document on the future of the Catholic church in Africa. One of its proposals would create a "sacrament of reconciliation" to promote acts of forgiveness. It would seek to prevent the escalating acts of revenge that fuel conflicts in African countries such as Ivory Coast and Nigeria, where thousands have died in recent wars and terrorist attacks.