YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Thursday urged Christians and Muslims in Africa to shun inter-religious violence, but criticism of a comment he made about AIDS showed no sign of abating.
The pope began his third day in Cameroon by meeting with 22 leaders of the country’s Muslim community before starting saying an open-air mass at Yaounde’s stadium for a throbbing crowd of tens of thousands.
In his address to the Muslims at the Vatican’s embassy here, the pope said both religions should “reject all forms of violence and totalitarianism.”
He added: “May the enthusiastic cooperation of Muslims, Catholics and other Christians in Cameroon be a beacon to other African nations of the enormous potential of an interreligious commitment to peace, justice and the common good.”
Clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs sparked by a disputed election killed hundreds of people in the Nigerian city Jos last November.
In January this year Sudanese authorities threw a United States-based aid group out of its Darfur region after officials found Arabic-language bibles in its office.
The pope has been using his meetings with Muslims to try to patch up relations which nosedived in 2006 after he made a speech in Regensburg, Germany, that was taken by Muslims to imply that Islam was violent and irrational. That speech led to worldwide protests by Muslims.
In Thursday’s address to Muslims, he said “religion and reason mutually reinforce each other,” another apparent attempt to show that he did not believe that Islam was irrational, as his 2006 speech had been interpreted.
But three days into his visit, the trip was still overshadowed by the worldwide controversy that was sparked when he said condoms “increase the problem” of AIDS.
The Vatican spokesman defended the pope’s stand, saying Benedict was merely re-stating the position of his predecessors that fidelity within heterosexual marriage and abstinence are the best ways to stop AIDS.
But the criticism showed no signs of abating and several governments, including that of his native Germany, have weighed in against him, some with unusual bluntness.
“I am very worried by what has happened. I think this is opposite of tolerance and understanding and I am very sorry about it,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Wednesday.
Human Rights Minister Rama Yade said she was “dumbfounded” by the Pope’s comments, saying they risked undermining the fight against AIDS. Other politicians went further, questioning whether the Pope’s ability to run the Church.
“This Pope is beginning to pose a real problem,” former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was quoted as saying by French television.
Kevin Robert Frost, head of the New York-based Foundation for Aids Research, joined a long list of activist groups to criticize the pope.
Frost said in a statement that by making such comments, the pope was “contradicting a large body of available evidence.”
“Condoms are an absolutely essential part of any HIV/AIDS prevention program. Healthcare and aid workers must be allowed to distribute them and teach people how to use them correctly,” Frost said.