BANGALORE, India — The Indian government says the Church is playing a crucial role in the fight against AIDS, a disease that has assumed epidemic proportions on the subcontinent.

“The Church has taken up HIV/AIDS as a very serious issue and we are very happy about the commitment of the Church in this,” Mayank Aggarwal, joint director of the National AIDS Control Organization, told the Register Jan. 29.

“Religious leaders hold mass support in this country and we are working very closely with the Church in spreading awareness on AIDS,” said Aggarwal.

Asked whether Catholic opposition to condoms is a sticking point for the National AIDS Control Organization’s close collaboration with the Church, Aggarwal replied: “I would not like to comment on condoms and the Church. The Church has its own stand on condoms.

“But, I would say, we acknowledge the great commitment and response of the Church in the fight against AIDS,” he said.

India last year took over from South Africa the dubious distinction of having the most number of HIV-positive people in the world, with more than 5.6 million cases reported by UNAIDS. The Church now runs the largest number of AIDS hospices by any faith-based or non-governmental organization (NGO) in India. The Church in India runs at least 71 exclusive AIDS care and support centers for those discriminated and shunned by society.

Aggarwal pointed out that the National AIDS Control Organization follows the formula of ABC (Abstinence before marriage, Be faithful to spouse and use of Condoms).

Though the Church may not agree with it, the official pointed out that the government has the responsibility to support condom usage to those who violate A and B as “it is duty bound to protect all its citizens even if they behave in a deviant manner.”

While he reiterated the claim that condoms remain “the only protection available” for indulging in sex outside marriage, it was exactly this stance that came under sharp criticism when Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban and president of the South African Bishops’ Conference, addressed Indian bishops in early January.

“The root cause of the wildfire spread of AIDS is irresponsible moral behavior. By distributing condoms, this [behavior] is not challenged but only encouraged,” Cardinal Napier said Jan. 6, addressing the Jan. 4-9 assembly of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, the Latin rite bishops meeting in the southern state of Kerala.

“By objecting to condoms, we are promoting sexual discipline,” Cardinal Napier said. “Show us a country in Sub-Saharan Africa that has reduced, let alone reversed, the rate of new infections” with condoms.

The condom-centric approach South Africa has followed for years has only pushed the country into the abyss in which it finds itself now, Cardinal Napier said. More than 12% of the country’s 48 million people are HIV positive, and half of all deaths are from AIDS.

To prove his point, Cardinal Napier said that Uganda is one of the greatest success stories in the fight against AIDS, with its abstinence program bringing down the HIV infection rate from more than 30% to below 6%.

“My country would not have come to a tragic situation like this if those in power had listened to the Church,” Cardinal Napier said in an interview.

Cautioning Indian bishops not to pursue the South African model, Cardinal Napier said South Africa has now hundreds of families headed by elder siblings, with neither parents nor grandparents alive to look after the AIDS orphans. Two of his own priests are looking after children of their brothers’ families — in one case six children, in the other eight.

“Our message to the Indian Church is: Please do not follow us,” added Cardinal Napier.

Bangalore Archbishop Bernard Moras, chairman of the Healthcare Commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (comprising all three rites in India), told the Register, “We fully agree with the concern raised by Cardinal Napier.”

By making condoms freely available on street corners, in railway stations and at bus stops, Archbishop Moras lamented that “the government is throwing morality to the winds. This will only repeat the tragedy that has unfolded in South Africa.”

While it is mandatory for cigarette manufacturers to print on cigarette packages the warning that smoking is hazardous to people’s health, the government is publicly encouraging immoral sexual behavior by propagating and distributing condoms, said Archbishop Moras.

Meanwhile, Father Sebastian Ouseparambil, director of the Catholic Hospitals Association of India, said that while the Church is in the forefront of providing care and support to HIV victims, it is being victimized by the government and other donor agencies in several Indian states.

“Many of them just bluntly reject our projects [for support] because we do not distribute condoms,” Father Ouseparambil told the Register Feb. 5. The Catholic Hospitals Association comprises 3,400 Church-run hospitals and health care centers

“But, the reality is that even NGOs have realized the value of our work and send their staff to attend AIDS awareness programs we are holding,” said Father Ouseparambil.

Ten of the 60 health workers attending an HIV care training program Feb. 6-12 at Catholic Hospitals Association of India’s headquarters in Hyderabad, he said, were from non-Church healthcare centers.

Anto Akkara writes from

Bangalore, India.