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Coke Not The Real Thing When It Comes To Contraception: Study

19 Dec

PARIS – The belief that Coca-Cola works as an after-sex spermicide is nothing but urban legend, a scientist cautions in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on Thursday.

Deborah Anderson, a professor in obstetrics and gynaecology at Harvard Medical School, says that Coca-cola douches were sometimes used in 1950s and 1960s America in the belief that the drink’s acidity killed sperm.

Soft-drink douches are still used as a post-coital contraceptive ploy in some poor countries, she says.

But, says Anderson, there is no evidence to suggest these unusual forms of contraception work – and plenty of reasons to suggest they could cause harm.

To begin with, Coke is not a very effective spermicide, as it is unlikely to kill the target.

And even if the beverage’s secret recipe were lethal, a speedy sperm is likely to outswim the douche and get to cervix first.

In addition, Coca-Cola damages the top layer of cells within the vagina, and makes a woman more prone to sexually transmitted disease. And while it is largely harmless to sperm, soda pop removes healthy bacteria, opening the way to fungal and bacterial infection.

Experiments with other forms of vaginal douches have found an increased risk of pelvic inflammation and ectopic pregnancy, in which a fertilised egg is implanted in the fallopian tube, rather than in the uterus.

Finally, says Anderson, there is the simple fact that there are much more effective and easy-to-use methods of contraception widely available.

Anderson also said there was a reason why she had gone into print.

An old study by her research group, on the impact of Coca-Cola on human semen, had recently been resurrected and had won a spoof Nobel prize, or IgNobel, for offbeat science.

She was afraid that the headlines surrounding this award may have repopularised the legend. – AFP/rose

Channel News Asia

Philippines' Catholic Bishops Attack Family Planning Bill

15 Nov

MANILA : The Philippines’ influential Catholic bishops on Friday attacked a new a bill promoting family planning in the Philippines, calling for drastic changes before it is passed into law.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is still willing to discuss the provisions of the Reproductive Health Care Act with its proponents in the legislature, said their spokesman Bishop Socorro Villegas.

However in a pastoral statement, the CBCP said the bill needed to be re-written to guarantee “the sacredness of life from conception.”

They also objected to provisions for sex education in schools, saying it would “violate the consciences of educators who refuse to teach forms of family planning that violate their religious traditions.”

“We call for a more widespread dialogue on the bill,” the bishops said.

They did not refer to the highly-visible campaign that the dominant church has been waging against the reproductive health act for the last few months.

International agencies and economists have called for the enactment of a family planning programme in the Philippines where the population now stands at around 90 million, with an annual growth rate of 2.04 percent, one of the highest in Asia.

However the Catholic church, which counts more than 80 percent of the populace as followers, is opposed to all forms of artificial contraception and has worked against efforts to spread the use of birth control in the country.

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, a devout Catholic, has previously said she is against contraceptives in principle, but her Social Welfare Secretary, Esperanza Cabral, said this week she did not believe Arroyo would veto the bill if it is passed by parliament.

– AFP /ls

Channel News Asia

Philippines’ Catholic Bishops Attack Family Planning Bill

15 Nov

MANILA : The Philippines’ influential Catholic bishops on Friday attacked a new a bill promoting family planning in the Philippines, calling for drastic changes before it is passed into law.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is still willing to discuss the provisions of the Reproductive Health Care Act with its proponents in the legislature, said their spokesman Bishop Socorro Villegas.

However in a pastoral statement, the CBCP said the bill needed to be re-written to guarantee “the sacredness of life from conception.”

They also objected to provisions for sex education in schools, saying it would “violate the consciences of educators who refuse to teach forms of family planning that violate their religious traditions.”

“We call for a more widespread dialogue on the bill,” the bishops said.

They did not refer to the highly-visible campaign that the dominant church has been waging against the reproductive health act for the last few months.

International agencies and economists have called for the enactment of a family planning programme in the Philippines where the population now stands at around 90 million, with an annual growth rate of 2.04 percent, one of the highest in Asia.

However the Catholic church, which counts more than 80 percent of the populace as followers, is opposed to all forms of artificial contraception and has worked against efforts to spread the use of birth control in the country.

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, a devout Catholic, has previously said she is against contraceptives in principle, but her Social Welfare Secretary, Esperanza Cabral, said this week she did not believe Arroyo would veto the bill if it is passed by parliament.

– AFP /ls

Channel News Asia

Singaporeans Knowledgeable About HIV/AIDS, But Stigma Remains

16 Oct

SINGAPORE : A nation-wide survey by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) showed that while Singaporeans are knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS, they are less accepting of those with the disease.

In Singapore, HIV is mainly spread through sexual activity. Yet, only one in five of those who engage in high-risk sexual behaviour – such as those who engage in casual sex or have multiple sex partners – use a condom consistently.

Some groups are concerned that many do not understand the importance of condoms in preventing HIV transmission.

“Condom use is still very much a taboo subject in Singapore, and most of the general population would relate the use of condom as a form of contraception, as opposed to preventing HIV/AIDS or even sexually-transmitted infections,” said Lionel Lee, executive director for Action for AIDS.

With the rate of sexually-transmitted infections among youths also increasing, Action for AIDS said the need to promote condom use goes beyond HIV prevention.

The survey also found that one in three are unaware that a person can be HIV positive, and still look healthy and lead a normal life.

This is a serious misconception, because it may prevent people from going for regular screenings if they engage in high-risk sexual behaviour, or they may fail to protect themselves with the use of condoms, if their sexual partners look healthy.

The survey of 1,768 people showed that although 68 per cent of the respondents agree that they cannot get HIV by simply sharing a meal with an infected individual, only 22.4 per cent or one in five will do so.

In addition, only 18.2 per cent of respondents said they will buy food from a person whom they know is infected.

But the stigma appears less for close relatives, with 54.1 per cent or over half of the respondents saying that they will care for an infected family member.

“If people are more accepting towards people with HIV, then they are more likely, should they be at risk, to come forward for testing because they may not be so fearful of being discriminated against,” said Dr Chan Mei Fen, deputy director of Research and Evaluation Department at the Health Promotion Board.

According to Action for AIDS, one way to remove the stigma is to put a face to the disease.

While recognising that individuals may be reluctant to step forward, it said that it is an important first step, and government agencies can help ease the problems of discrimination.

Over 80 per cent of respondents knew of at least two of the following preventive measures – sexual abstinence, sexual monogamy and condom use. But the level of awareness was the lowest among those aged between 18 and 29.

The HPB said previous education campaigns had been targeted at older Singaporeans, and with the new information, future efforts may be better aimed at the different groups.

The HPB plans to launch a series of awareness efforts, including a concert next month to commemorate World AIDS Day, which falls on December 1.

The concert, called “Love Amplified”, will be held on November 29, in time for World AIDS Day. Other plans include a Chinese-language drama series titled “By My Side”, jointly developed with MediaCorp. – CNA /ls

Channel News Asia

Contraception Awareness Among Teenagers Severely Lacking

27 Sep

SINGAPORE : September 27 is World Contraception Day and some health groups in Singapore are taking the opportunity to call for improved education on the choices and usage of contraception, in light of increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections among teenagers.

It has been eight years since schools started teaching about sex and contraception but it seems students are still woefully ignorant.

In a survey of 240 youths aged 15 to 20, it was found that 30 per cent thought washing the genitals after sex could prevent pregnancy while 15 per cent believed urinating will do the same.

16 percent believed that exercising vigorously after sex will help shed off sperm, thus preventing pregnancy.

The survey, conducted by pharmaceutical company Bayer Schering Pharma and with doctors advising on the study, found that about 1 in 4 youths engage in sexual activity and about half of them are not using contraceptives.

Said Dr Janet Lee, a general practitioner at Temasek Medical Centre: “I do see teenagers with unwanted pregnancies, and a lot of times, they do not even realise that they are pregnant because it never occurred to them they can be pregnant through unprotected sex.

“Their mindset is that it will not happen to me… I think we need to educate youths about the importance of abstinence, and also educating them about condom use and contraceptive pills so as to prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

Teenagers account for about 12 percent of abortion numbers every year, and the number of teenagers with sexually transmitted infections has also doubled in the last decade.

The Ministry of Education has made it compulsory for all schools to have a sexuality education programme, but it seems the message is still not getting through to all teenagers.

Some said it’s because teachers gloss over sexuality education. Others feel teenagers may be too embarrassed to ask questions about sex in class.

“It is not just enough for the schools to be teaching, or for the VWOs to come in. They (teenagers) need to be guided to the right sources of information, and parents can also play a part to be more open, to encourage their teenagers to approach them if they have questions about sex. But I think this will take time, as we are still a pretty conservative society,” said Joanne Tan, spokesperson for the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association. – CNA /ls

Channel News Asia

Too Young To Have Babies? Think Again

12 Sep

SINGAPORE: The question seemed out of place in a lecture theatre of over 100 young university students: “Are you at risk of childlessness?”

Yet, as obstetrician-gynaecologist Teoh Seng Hin went on to point out, eight to 15 per cent of couples will experience fertility problems at some point in their lives, and couples who have sex during their fertile periods stand only a 30 per cent chance of conceiving.

“When people use contraception, the underlying assumption is that they are fertile,” he said.

But while female age is the overwhelming factor in sub-fertility, men’s age is “grossly overlooked”, said Dr Teoh, who was speaking on Thursday at a sexual health awareness talk at the Nanyang Technological University organised by the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, Bayer Schering Pharma and the university.

From the time men are in their late 20s, the chances of their contributing to a successful pregnancy fall by 11 per cent each year.

The chances of a successful live birth also dip, while the likelihood of passing on genetic abnormalities increase, warned Dr Teoh.

Dr Teoh – who also has a Master’s degree in men’s health and andrology – said he was sharing his experience with the students so that they can be forewarned about the problems that may emerge later in their lives.

“If you see enough patients, you’ll find that a lot of them miscarry,” he said.

“Many problems can’t be reversed because of age,” he added.

Another fertility doctor, Prof Christopher Chen, told TODAY that none of the men in the couples who consulted him in the last five years has passed the “sperm test”.

“I have couples who come to see me to ask if they are all right making babies in two to three years’ time. I tell them, ‘You don’t have to worry about contraception or abstaining because your sperm is poor anyway.’

“Within their means, couples should try not to delay too long,” advised Prof Chen, who runs a private practice at Gleneagles Hospital.

Channel News Asia

News Focus: Sex And The Young Ones

24 Aug

Prof Dr Low Wah Yun says youth sexuality is still a sensitive subject, not just in Asian countries but in all cultures.

Once, it was puppy love. Today, being adolescent is no longer the age of innocence. Boys and girls as young as 12 have gone more than just ogle at each other, writes NURRIS ISHAK.

AT a time when many girls are still thinking that boys are pests, 12-year-old Ani (not her real name) was already sneaking off to meet her 15-year-old boyfriend.

But Ani’s puppy love took a different twist when she became pregnant.

At an age when her friends were looking forward to secondary school, Ani was breast-feeding her baby boy.

Adolescence, defined as between 10 and 19 years old, is no longer the age of innocence.
When once boys were “icky” and girls “yucky”, upon reaching puberty, the opposite sex suddenly becomes objects of curiosity.

This is the time when the hormones begin to kick in, and ogling at the opposite sex becomes an exciting pastime, says University of Malaya psychologist Prof Dr Low Wah Yun.

“Girls start having crushes on adults, like a teacher or a parent’s friend. For boys, this is the time when they have stronger sexual impulses and fantasies,” she said.

It is ironic that adolescents and youths — the latter defined as those between the ages of 15 and 24 — are the least informed on the importance of sexual health at an age when they are the most curious about sex.

A 2004 national survey on Malaysian youths shows that two out of five had their first date between the ages of 13 and 15.

Conducted by the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN), the survey also revealed that four out of five started holding hands, kissing and petting between the ages of 13 and 18.

Due to a widening age gap between puberty and marriage, there will be a higher prevalence of adolescents having premarital sex. Out of 13,971 survey respondents who have had sex, 38.2 per cent had it before the age of 20.

The group is most likely to have multiple sexual and casual partners, have unprotected sex, become pregnant accidentally and contract sexually-transmitted disease.

Young males tend to lose their virginity out of curiosity or for the sake of sexual pleasure, while young women associate it with love or a long-term relationship.

Adolescents living with single parents have a significantly higher rate of having sexual intercourse than those living with both biological parents, as found in another study done in Negri Sembilan.

“Their risky behaviour is caused by the lack of sexual and reproductive health information.

“They are not taught the necessary skills in negotiating sexual relationships and how to deal with peer pressure,” says Dr Low, who presented her findings at the National Population Conference: Youth and the Changing Demographics on Monday.

In her paper entitled Youth Sexuality: A Psycho-Social Perspective, she noted that youths do not get proper access to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services.

And the facts tell a grim story. Each year, one in 20 adolescents globally would contract sexually transmitted infection.

Every day, over 7,000 youths aged between 10 and 24 are infected with HIV.

Statistics by the World Health Organisation show that 4.4 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 undergo unsafe abortions each year, and 60,000 die due to complications of an early pregnancy and childbirth-related problems.

Still, around the world, policy makers, community members, parents and teachers shy away from discussing sex and reproductive health with teenagers.

Most of the time, the youths have to resort to getting their information from friends, the Internet or magazines, which may provide sensational and inaccurate information.

The LPPKN survey found that one out of two adolescents aged 14 to 15 have read pornographic materials.

Forty-four per cent have watched pornographic images, some having done so at the age of nine.

“Education programmes on adolescent sexual health are rather scanty.

“Although a family health education programme is endorsed by the Education Ministry, teachers are seldom equipped and are uncomfortable in teaching the subject,” says Dr Low.

In Malaysia, sexuality is a taboo subject which parents are least likely to discuss with their children.

The LPPKN survey revealed that parents would rather talk to their children about education and spending habits, and most would skip the subject of boyfriends and girlfriends altogether.

Studies have revealed that the society is more tolerant towards boys losing their virginity before marriage.

The society’s gender-biasness towards premarital sex leaves the adolescent females to be more vulnerable to the negative consequences of premarital sex.

“Youth sexuality is still a sensitive subject, not just in Asian countries but in all cultures,” said Dr Low.

“Programmes that offer sexual and reproductive health services to youths can expect to encounter some resistance from the community.

“Sex education is not ‘training for promiscuity’, it aims to increase the individual’s responsibility in a normal healthy sexual relationship.

“In countries which have sex education, the youths tend to delay their initiation into sex. When they actually have sex, more of them took the necessary precautions.”

When Dr Low and her colleagues did a study on the sexual activities of Malaysian adolescents, they found that only 37 per cent of sexually active teenagers use any form of birth control.

“One-third of those who don’t use any form of contraceptive say they didn’t expect to have sex, and another third say that sex wasn’t as much fun with it, or that they find it difficult to use.

“It could also be because they are scared their families would find out,” says Dr Low.

Turning a blind eye towards sexuality among adolescents is no longer an option. With things going the way it is, sexual education is a vital necessity.

“Both young women and men need sexual education. They need to be taught issues relating to sexuality such as contraception, healthy and responsible relationship, marriage.

“They need to be educated on sexual orientation, reproduction, abstinence and gender roles as well as other sexual health-related issues. Sexually active adolescents need to understand the risks involved.”

In this case, ignorance is not bliss.

New Straits Times

World's Biggest Christian Festival Launched With Sydney Mass

15 Jul

SYDNEY : The world’s biggest Christian festival opened Tuesday with a spectacular harbour side mass for thousands of pilgrims taking part in World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney headed by Pope Benedict XVI.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a committed Anglican, made a surprise appearance at the start of the open-air service to welcome more than 200,000 pilgrims from around the world to the week-long celebration.

Rudd, taking to the stage alongside Darling Harbour after a stirring traditional welcome dance by Aborigines, described Catholic World Youth Day as a great celebration of life and faith.

“Too often in the history of the world, when young people travel in great number to other parts of the world, they do so in the cause of war, but you are here as pilgrims of peace,” he said.

“Some say there is no place for faith in the 21st century, I say they are wrong.

“Some say that faith is the enemy of reason, I say also they are wrong,” Rudd told the pilgrims, welcoming them in several languages, including German, Italian, French, Korean and Bahasa Indonesia.

The mass — celebrated by the leader of Australia’s Catholics, Cardinal George Pell — attracted an estimated 150,000 people, including 26 cardinals, 400 bishops and 3,000 to 4,000 priests, said spokesman Bishop Anthony Fisher.

“That will make it the biggest mass we’ve ever celebrated in Australia, the grandest mass in Australia,” Fisher said ahead of the service.

The record will not last long, however, with 500,000 people expected to attend the closing World Youth Day mass on Sunday, led by Pope Benedict.

More than 100,000 foreign pilgrims from around the world are in Sydney for the six-day event, along with a similar number of young Australians who have registered their participation.

World Youth Day, a celebration of the Catholic faith aimed at rejuvenating the church, has been held in a different host city around the world every two or three years since 1986.

The pontiff flew into Sydney on Sunday, but was resting and recovering from jet-lag at a semi-rural Catholic retreat on the outskirts of the city ahead of his formal arrival by “boat-a-cade” in the harbour on Thursday.

Benedict has introduced a new element for the Sydney celebration, harnessing technology to send an inspirational mobile phone text to pilgrims each day.

The first of the texts, sent Tuesday, read: “Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Father’s supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus – BXVI”.

Pilgrims need to simply text the word Pope to a special number to receive the messages.

Four giant screens have also been erected at major festival venues around the city, including the iconic Sydney Opera House, and pilgrims who sign up will be able to send a message to the digital “prayer walls”.

“We wanted to make WYD08 a unique experience by using new ways to connect with today’s tech-savvy youth,” said Fisher.

Also making an attempt to connect with the pilgrims are protesters angered by the pope’s opposition to contraception.

They began handing out condoms to Catholic worshippers in Sydney on Tuesday after a court overturned a law aimed at stopping anyone from “annoying” the pilgrims, saying it undermined free speech.

Activists had complained that the law could lead to arrests and fines of up to 5,500 Australian dollars (US$5,335) for simply wearing a T-shirt with a slogan which could be deemed annoying to those at the festivities.

“We will be sending off a welcome letter accompanied by condoms to 325 places where pilgrims are being housed,” said Rachel Evans of the NoToPope Coalition, which took the case to court.

Some young pilgrims fled as Evans wasted no time in exercising her new freedom, handing out condoms outside the court.

However, Cheryl O’Byrne from the United States was untroubled, politely declining Evans’ offer.

“I disagree with you,” O’Byrne told the activist. “But I think it’s fine if people want to protest. I’m not offended.”

The pope, meanwhile was recovering well after his 20-hour flight from Rome, Fisher said.

“I was very impressed by his energy as we went walking in the garden and we were having trouble keeping up with him, and he’s 81, but very fit,” Fisher told reporters.

– AFP/os

Channel News Asia

World’s Biggest Christian Festival Launched With Sydney Mass

15 Jul

SYDNEY : The world’s biggest Christian festival opened Tuesday with a spectacular harbour side mass for thousands of pilgrims taking part in World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney headed by Pope Benedict XVI.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a committed Anglican, made a surprise appearance at the start of the open-air service to welcome more than 200,000 pilgrims from around the world to the week-long celebration.

Rudd, taking to the stage alongside Darling Harbour after a stirring traditional welcome dance by Aborigines, described Catholic World Youth Day as a great celebration of life and faith.

“Too often in the history of the world, when young people travel in great number to other parts of the world, they do so in the cause of war, but you are here as pilgrims of peace,” he said.

“Some say there is no place for faith in the 21st century, I say they are wrong.

“Some say that faith is the enemy of reason, I say also they are wrong,” Rudd told the pilgrims, welcoming them in several languages, including German, Italian, French, Korean and Bahasa Indonesia.

The mass — celebrated by the leader of Australia’s Catholics, Cardinal George Pell — attracted an estimated 150,000 people, including 26 cardinals, 400 bishops and 3,000 to 4,000 priests, said spokesman Bishop Anthony Fisher.

“That will make it the biggest mass we’ve ever celebrated in Australia, the grandest mass in Australia,” Fisher said ahead of the service.

The record will not last long, however, with 500,000 people expected to attend the closing World Youth Day mass on Sunday, led by Pope Benedict.

More than 100,000 foreign pilgrims from around the world are in Sydney for the six-day event, along with a similar number of young Australians who have registered their participation.

World Youth Day, a celebration of the Catholic faith aimed at rejuvenating the church, has been held in a different host city around the world every two or three years since 1986.

The pontiff flew into Sydney on Sunday, but was resting and recovering from jet-lag at a semi-rural Catholic retreat on the outskirts of the city ahead of his formal arrival by “boat-a-cade” in the harbour on Thursday.

Benedict has introduced a new element for the Sydney celebration, harnessing technology to send an inspirational mobile phone text to pilgrims each day.

The first of the texts, sent Tuesday, read: “Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Father’s supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus – BXVI”.

Pilgrims need to simply text the word Pope to a special number to receive the messages.

Four giant screens have also been erected at major festival venues around the city, including the iconic Sydney Opera House, and pilgrims who sign up will be able to send a message to the digital “prayer walls”.

“We wanted to make WYD08 a unique experience by using new ways to connect with today’s tech-savvy youth,” said Fisher.

Also making an attempt to connect with the pilgrims are protesters angered by the pope’s opposition to contraception.

They began handing out condoms to Catholic worshippers in Sydney on Tuesday after a court overturned a law aimed at stopping anyone from “annoying” the pilgrims, saying it undermined free speech.

Activists had complained that the law could lead to arrests and fines of up to 5,500 Australian dollars (US$5,335) for simply wearing a T-shirt with a slogan which could be deemed annoying to those at the festivities.

“We will be sending off a welcome letter accompanied by condoms to 325 places where pilgrims are being housed,” said Rachel Evans of the NoToPope Coalition, which took the case to court.

Some young pilgrims fled as Evans wasted no time in exercising her new freedom, handing out condoms outside the court.

However, Cheryl O’Byrne from the United States was untroubled, politely declining Evans’ offer.

“I disagree with you,” O’Byrne told the activist. “But I think it’s fine if people want to protest. I’m not offended.”

The pope, meanwhile was recovering well after his 20-hour flight from Rome, Fisher said.

“I was very impressed by his energy as we went walking in the garden and we were having trouble keeping up with him, and he’s 81, but very fit,” Fisher told reporters.

– AFP/os

Channel News Asia

Pope Benedict Starts Australia Visit

13 Jul

SYDNEY: Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Sydney on Sunday for one of the largest Christian gatherings on Earth, starting a visit set to be marked by his apology for sexual abuse by priests in Australia.

The spiritual leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics was met by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Sydney Archbishop George Pell as he began his nine-day trip, his first here since becoming pontiff in 2005.

The Pope is in Australia for World Youth Day, a celebration of the Catholic faith aimed at young people that is expected to draw more than 100,000 foreign pilgrims to the city and attract crowds of 500,000 to events.

But his visit comes as the issue of sexual abuse by the clergy has again hit headlines in Australia, where a case which has recently come to light has re-ignited concerns about the church’s ability to deal with the problem.

Benedict, who apologised for abuse and took the unexpected step of meeting with victims of predator priests during his April trip to the United States, has said he will address the issue in Australia.

Speaking to journalists during his 20-hour flight here, the 81-year-old pontiff said he would examine how the Catholic Church can “prevent, heal and reconcile” the past crimes of the clergy.

“This is the essential content of what we will say as we apologise,” he said.

The Pope will spend the his first three days in Sydney in private at a Catholic retreat centre before being officially welcomed on Thursday, when he arrives in Sydney Harbour by boat.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims from Australia and around the world have begun to stream into Sydney for the events, which culminate in an open-air mass at Randwick Racecourse in July 20.

Speaking ahead of his landing in Sydney, the pontiff said the main messages of his visit will include an emphasis on environmental concerns and “our responsibility towards creation.”

“We must awaken consciences,” he told reporters.

“We have to face up to this great challenge and find the ethical capacity to change the situation of the environment for the good.”

Asked whether he was concerned about holding a major religious event in a mostly secular country, the Pope said Australia was a part of the Western world and, as such, shared its successes and problems.

He said there was a crisis of religion in Europe, where the position sometimes was that: “We do not need God to be happy, we do not need God to create a better world. God is not necessary.”

He said this was not so much the case in the United States and Australia.

“On the other hand, God is in the hearts of human beings and can never disappear,” he said.

“There is always a presence of faith. Now that (at) this historical moment we begin to see some belief again in this sense I am fairly optimistic.”

Gay rights activists and others are set to protest against the Pope’s stance on homosexuality and contraception during his visit, while police powers to arrest people for annoying the pilgrims have angered civil libertarians.

About 150 protesters from secular groups marked the Pope’s arrival in Melbourne with a rally against World Youth Day.

“We’ve got people here who are frustrated. It’s called World Youth Day but it’s not all-inclusive, it doesn’t include all youth. It’s organised by the Catholic Church and is promoting Catholicism,” organiser Jason Ball said.

Pope Benedict expressed “great joy” about the visit, saying World Youth Day events had the ability to open frontiers between nations and bring cultures together.

In an official statement to the “great southern land of the Holy Spirit” he wrote that all Australians were in his thoughts.

“Although I will be able to spend only a few days in your country, and I will not be able to travel outside Sydney, my heart reaches out to all of you, including those who are sick or in difficulties of any kind.” – AFP/os

Channel News Asia