(Bloomberg) -- The head of Mali’s most influential religious organization, the Islamic High Council, criticized the government for showing poor leadership and attacked former colonial ruler France for “dictating everything we’re supposed to do.”

Mahmoud Dicko’s unusually strong criticism of the government of the predominantly Muslim nation came during what began as a prayer meeting of about 60,000 people in a stadium in the capital, Bamako. While almost 19,000 United Nations peacekeepers and French troops have been deployed since a 2012 Islamist insurgency, Mali has been struggling to prevent near-daily attacks by militants linked to al-Qaeda-linked militants that have spilled over to neighboring Burkina Faso.

“The problem of our country is a problem of governance,” Dicko, the nation’s most high-profile supporter of the conservative Wahhabi school of Islam, said Sunday after calling for prayers for those who have died in the conflict. He also urged France to “end its interference in our country.”

Even though the government offered to contribute funds to organize the rally, Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga issued a statement afterward condemning the meeting, saying it was meant to be a peace initiative.

Dicko was involved in mediation efforts during the insurgency before throwing his weight behind President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in the 2013 presidential vote. Keita won a second term last year. In December, Dicko took the lead in protests that halted the introduction of a textbook for sex education advocating a tolerant approach to homosexuality.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Katarina Hoije in Abidjan at khoije@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Maier at kmaier2@bloomberg.net, Pauline Bax, Liezel Hill

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