AIDS campaigners sounded a jarring note Monday over the papacy of John Paul II, describing his ban on condom use, abhorrence of homosexuality and conservatism on women's rights as bleak failures in the fight against HIV.
The pope's tenure straddled AIDS' rise from a disease first seen in a handful of American gays to a global pandemic that by last year had claimed more than 20 million lives and left nearly 40 million others infected with HIV.
As the catastrophe unfolded, the pontiff repeatedly called for support for people sickened with the human immunodeficiency virus and always pleaded for the cause of AIDS orphans.
But he always followed an unbending line when it came to the causes of AIDS and preventing its spread.
In his edicts, he fought tirelessly against condoms, branded homosexuality immoral and emphasised a passive role for women as family anchor and child bearer.
With an eye to Catholic liberals who suggested condoms could help protect against HIV, the pope declared in a landmark message in 1988 that use of contraception was "intrinsically illicit."
"No personal or social circumstances could ever, can now, or will ever, render such an act lawful in itself," he said.
Less than three weeks before he died, the pope told Tanzanian bishops on March 11 that "fidelity within marriage and abstinence outside are the only sure ways to limit the further spread of AIDS infection."
Radical AIDS campaigners said Monday that, in their view, by stigmatising homosexuality, denying condoms and hampering female empowerment, the pope may even have helped propagate HIV.
"Millions of people in developing countries are orphans, having lost their parents to AIDS because of the pope's anti-condom dogma," said British gay campaigner Peter Tatchell of the group OutRage.
"We mourn for the eight million Catholics who have died of AIDS, and worry for the more than 10 million Catholics who are infected," said Khalil Elouardighi of the French branch of the lobby group Act Up.
"It should not be forgotten that millions have died in Africa as a result of this theological rigidity," said the British centrist daily The Independent.
"Blindess in the face of AIDS," was the headline in France's left-of-centre daily Liberation.
A pro-reform Catholic group, We Are Church, founded in 1996, said John Paul II's pontificate "was full of contradictions."
"Among the human rights still crying out for recognition in the church are gender equality... and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS," it said.
The pope's emphasis on abstinence and fidelity is shared by evangelical American Christians, who have successfully lobbied to have those messages promoted under President George W. Bush's programme to fight AIDS in Africa.
But many workers on the ground in Africa, the home of two-thirds of the world's AIDS victims, say this message is almost useless among sexually curious youngsters and among men for whom promiscuity is a way of life.
They also say AIDS is spread by lack of female empowerment: in many settings, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a woman who cannot refuse intercourse or oblige her promiscuous partner to wear a condom places herself -- and their foetus -- at risk.
"We didn't particularly expect the pope to come out in favour of the condom, but it would have been good if he at least hadn't said anything against it," said Christian Saoult, president of the French AIDS charity Aides.
"He insinuated that the only possible (forms of protection) were only abstinence and fidelity, and those are aspirations that are unlikely to be met by most people -- otherwise we wouldn't be in the situation we are today," he said.
Ben Plumley, chief of executive office at UNAIDS in Geneva, admitted that the UN agency and the Vatican under John Paul II had remained far apart on the issue of AIDS prevention.
"Clearly we would want them (the church) to change but I'm not going to get into a theological debate," Plumley told AFP.
He heaped praise on the church for its "very active role" in providing treatment and support for people living with HIV, and added it had great potential, "even if it's not fully exploited," for tackling stigma and discrimination associated with HIV.All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.