Vatican rejects Belgian censure of pope on condoms

*Vatican defends pope's remarks on condoms and AIDS

*Belgian criticism closest yet to diplomatic incident

VATICAN CITY, April 3 (Reuters) - The Vatican on Friday rejected a resolution passed by the Belgian parliament condemning Pope Benedict for saying that the use of condoms could worsen the spread of AIDS.

The pope's controversial remarks last month have provoked widespread criticism in the press and by health officials and politicians in Europe, but the Belgian move was the first time a country had ordered a diplomatic protest against the Vatican. The resolution passed by the Belgian parliament late on Thursday called on the Belgian envoy to the Vatican to lodge a protest over the pontiff's "unacceptable" comments.

It ordered the government to "react strongly against any state or organisation that in the future brings into doubt the benefit of using condoms to prevent transmission of the AIDS virus".

Chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he was shocked.

"(It's) astonishing, given that it appears obvious in any democratic state that the Holy Father and the Church are free to express their own positions," he said.

At the start of his first trip to Africa on March 17, Benedict said AIDS "cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem".

The comments led to unprecedented condemnations in editorials in the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications, and a storm of criticism by health officials and politicians in a number of countries.

An article in the British medical journal "The Lancet" accused the pope of having "distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine".

Former French Prime Minister Alain Juppe went as far as saying that Benedict seemed to be "living in a situation of total autism."

The Belgian resolution brought the controversy to the brink of a diplomatic incident between two sovereign states.

The Catholic Church teaches that fidelity within heterosexual marriage and abstinence from sex are the best ways to stop AIDS, and also says condoms can lead to risky behaviour.

Lombardi questioned whether Belgium's lawmakers had paid enough attention to the pope's arguments when they overwhelmingly approved the resolution, and whether they had got their information from the "non-objective" Western media.

The Vatican has defended the pope's words, saying he was "maintaining the position of his predecessors".

HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, has infected some 33 million people globally and has killed 25 million. Two-thirds of those infected are in Africa. (Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; writing by Philip Pullella; editing by Tim Pearce)