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Debate Over Condom Campaign In Tanzania - 2002-08-19

In Tanzania, a war of words is raging between the Roman Catholic and Muslim clergy and a media tycoon, Reginald Abraham Mengi. The dispute is over Mr. Mengi’s call for the clergy to campaign for the use of condoms as a means of checking the spread of HIV-AIDS.

Mr. Mengi is one of the richest men in Tanzania and owns the largest media company in the country. He started the campaign for the use of condoms about two weeks ago, calling on religious leaders to come out and support it.

He is promoting the voluntary counseling and testing services initiated by the African medical research foundation. A number of newspapers -- including his own daily, The Guardian -- reported that Mr. Mengi accused religious leaders of being killers, saying their stance on condom use had contributed to many deaths since many of their followers contracted the disease because they did not practice protected sex. Mr. Mengi says he was misquoted. He denies calling religious leaders murderers.

He says, “What I said was that religious leaders who prohibit their believers from using the condom will be deemed to be participants in murder if the believer contracts HIV/AIDS and dies because he did not practice protected sex, he did not use condoms. I said that and i still believe in that statement.”

Soon after Mr. Mengi’s speech, the catholic leader in the country, Polycarp Cardinal Pengo, said there was no way the Catholic Church would condone the use of condoms. He says this is not only for religious reasons but also because it has been scientifically proven that condoms are not effective. Cardinal Pengo says the Catholic Church in the country is not to be blamed for the deaths of people who contract HIV / AIDS as a result of not using condoms for safe sex. In the meantime, Muslims in the country, through their spokesman, have refused to condone the use of condoms, calling it sinful and saying it encourages adultery. Sheikh Shomari M-Cho-Ngo-Ma says the holy book, the Q-uran, has ruled that adultery among Muslims is unacceptable and ungodly. He says Muslims should follow the teachings of god - not men, no matter how rich they are -if they want to go to heaven. Sheikh Shomari's speech is being repeatedly aired by radio Q-uran, a muslim-owned fm station in Dar es Salaam.

He says, “All guidelines, principles and directives regarding man’s life on the earth are in the Q-uran. Q-uran has the remedy for this ailment as well as other ills. If we do agree that adultery is the reason for the spread of aids then a Muslim through the Q-uran has a holy book that explains and directs them on how to combat adultery. “

Mr. Mengi has accused the clergy of hitting below the belt and calls on them to be truthful in the war against HIV/AIDS. He says he does not know why the clergy has been so upset by his statement. He says, “Quite honestly, I just don’t know what i said that did eventually upset the clergy so much. I wish i knew. All I said was what i believed to be true. And if the truth does upset some people it is not my problem but their problem.”

Mr. Mengi says that the truth will not only save people’s lives, but it will also set them free and bring them closer to god. He refutes accusations made by some religious leaders that he owns a condom manufacturing factory or that he is engaged in the condom business. He is also asking those who question the effectiveness of condoms to present scientific proof of their unreliability. He urges religious leaders, HIV/AIDS experts and civil society to play their roles without impeding one another in the fulfillment of their duties. Mr. Mengi says there are three internationally accepted ways of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, namely abstinence, faithfulness and the use of condoms by those who have been unable or refuse to change their sexual behavior.