An Anglican bishop in The Gambia has for the first time promoted condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. The bishop's support for the use of condoms breaks with other religious leaders who oppose their use and comes amid worries about a spike in infections in the small west African country.
A recent service at the Anglican church in the Gambian town of Serrekunda broke with tradition when Bishop Solomon Tilewa made clear his acceptance of condoms to protect people against disease.
"We are aware that we live in a world where not everybody is holy and for some people abstinence or one partner is not a viable proposition, therefore, the only sensible and responsible line of action is a use of condoms," Bishop Tilewa said.
More than 80 percent of The Gambia's population of 1.3 million is Muslim, but Christian churches exert a strong social influence, especially among elites.
Catholic priests have spoken out against the aggressive state-sponsored campaign to put condoms within easy reach of Gambians, saying Catholics should seek more knowledge about their faith and its teachings in order to "avoid being misled by public opinion that condoms should be made easily accessible."
Despite this, The Gambia Social Marketing Management Program has packaged condoms and contraceptive pills in chocolate-style packs which are sold cheaply under brand names like "cool."
In his sermon, Bishop Tilewa said it was blasphemous to persecute those with AIDS and to allow this disease to spread.
"The stigma attached to those living with HIV/AIDS is a scandal of our times, it is also a blasphemy," he said. "Such stigmatization of a section of our community is unacceptable. Those living with HIV and AIDS we are called to come to terms with their condition."
The Gambia has a relatively low infection rate, estimated at about two or three percent for adults, but many aid workers fear it could be higher because of an increase in the sexual abuse of children.
The Gambia has been linked to sex tourism from Europe, but a recent United Nations report said main abusers are Gambian males.
It warned that this was the beginning of a downward spiral for young girls of child pregnancy, family shame, prostitution and HIV infection.
On the streets of the capital, Banjul, residents reacted positively to the bishop's call for the use of condoms.
"I think it's a good suggestion to at least sensitize people on this dangerous disease," one resident said.
"Well it is a positive call now that we have come to a crisis stage it is now our duty to intensify our effort in that direction," said another.
"It's a global challenge that we all should fight against this dreadful disease," said a third resident. "If it doesn't happen to us it might happen to our neighbors, our friends, our relatives, so it's a global thing that everybody should fight against."
At the Anglican church, volunteers and nurses also help those already infected with the deadly virus, providing counseling and home-based care.