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Reuters, March 12, 2007

Condom debate flares in Brazil before pope visit

BRASILIA, March 12 (Reuters) - Brazilian officials and the country's Roman Catholic hierarchy are exchanging angry words over condom use and sex education just two months before the pope visits the world's largest Catholic nation.

Brazilian Cardinal Eugenio Sales, in an opinion piece in O Globo newspaper over the weekend, criticized government programs promoting condom use.

"I know the erotic climate," he wrote. "It is precisely because of this decadence (that we cannot) close our eyes and promote exactly what should be avoided."

The head of the anti-AIDS program, Mariangela Simao, hit back at the cardinal on Monday. "Policies to prevent AIDS are not 'sex promotion,'" she said in a statement.

"Abstinence and self-control are intimate personal matters and can in no way serve as a basis for public policy."

Brazil's government gives away tens of millions of free condoms each year as part of its AIDS prevention program, which has succeeded in keeping infection rates low in a country know for its liberal attitudes towards sex.

The program encourages condom use, especially before and during Brazil's bacchanalian Carnival celebration.

Most of Brazil's 185 million people are Catholic, and the Church is against birth control and sex outside marriage.

The simmering tensions between Church and state reached a new level last week when President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva himself accused the church of hypocrisy.

At a health ministry event in Rio de Janeiro, Lula said the government would give out condoms and teach people how to use them -- adding that "Sex is something everybody likes."

On Sunday, the head of the National Bishops Conference, Cardinal Geraldo Majella, said on the television program Fantastico, "We cannot agree with condoms because they turn life into a life without responsibility."

Pope Benedict XVI will make his first visit to Brazil in May and the issue is likely to figure strongly in his message.

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