Pope Benedict XVI's declaration in Brazil that colonial-era evangelization in the New World did not represent "the imposition of a foreign culture" has ignited criticism from indigenous representatives and the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia.
Indigenous groups from Chile to Mexico have condemned the remarks as a revision of a history marked by massacres, enslavement and destruction of native cultures.
For many in Latin America, the incident was reminiscent of provocative comments the pope made last year about Islam, unleashing a wave of anger across the Muslim world.
The response this time has been concentrated in the region, but analysts say the reaction again illustrates the pope's apparent tin ear for the often provocative content of his discourse.
Despite a keen analytical mind, "Benedict can also be remarkably tone-deaf to how his pronouncements may sound to people who don't share his intellectual and cultural premises," John L. Allen Jr., a Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, wrote after the pope's trip to Brazil this month.
Benedict's comments came in a speech from the Brazilian shrine town of Aparecida on the final day of his first visit to the Americas as pope. He referred to the arrival of European explorers in the 15th century as an "encounter" between "faith and the indigenous people" of the New World.
"The proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture," Benedict declared. The people of the Americas, the pope said, had been "silently longing" for Christ "without realizing it," and willingly received a Holy Spirit "who came to make their cultures fruitful, purifying them."
The pope's analysis didn't mention the widely acknowledged violent side of the conquest, a theme that is at the heart of a resurgent indigenous movement in Latin America.
Most credible modern accounts of the conquest now include some reference to the often barbarous treatment that Spanish and Portuguese overseers inflicted on native populations through colonial times.
"Surely the pope doesn't realize that the representatives of the Catholic Church of that era, with honorable exceptions, were complicit, accessories and beneficiaries of one of the more horrible genocides that humanity has seen," said an Ecuadorean-based association of Quechua Indians, one of South America's largest indigenous groups.
Benedict previously has recognized the sins of overzealous colonizers, and his comments in Brazil apparently were intended to celebrate Christianity as a faith for all humanity. But his manner of expressing those sentiments caused considerable consternation.
A Peru-based alliance of Andean Indians, in an open letter to Benedict, wrote that the pope must know that "the so-called evangelization was violent," adding, "Any cult that wasn't Catholic was persecuted and cruelly repressed."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called publicly on the pope to apologize.
"How can he say that the evangelization wasn't imposed if they arrived here with arms and entered with blood, lead and fire," Chavez asked a radio and television audience recently. "The bones of the indigenous martyrs of these lands are still burning."
Animating Chavez's ire, many analysts say, is the fact that Benedict also singled out for criticism "authoritarian" tendencies, widely interpreted in Latin America as a broadside at Chavez, a leftist ex-colonel who has clashed frequently with the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and labeled Jesus "the greatest socialist in history."
Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close Chavez ally who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, said it was time for the church to decide "whether it was going to pray or make politics."
Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera was among many contrasting the attitude of Benedict with the words and actions of Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, who made a point of meeting with indigenous representatives during his visits to the region. John Paul II also recognized abuses suffered by indigenous Americans and by African slaves abducted and brought to the New World.
"One would like to hear more of the generosity and comprehension of John Paul II," Garcia Linera remarked after Benedict's departure. "But at any rate, we remain with the words of John Paul II asking forgiveness of the indigenous communities."
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Rome and Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.