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South Africans urged to pray for Nelson Mandela

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s president said Monday that a critically ill Nelson Mandela was ‘‘asleep’’ when he visited the 94-year-old at the hospital, and he urged the country to pray for Mandela, describing him as the ‘‘father of democracy’’ who made extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of his people.

President Jacob Zuma told dozens of foreign and South African journalists that doctors are doing everything possible to help the former president feel comfortable on his 17th day in a Pretoria hospital, but refused to give details of Mandela’s condition, saying: ‘‘I’m not a doctor.’’ The briefing came a day after the government said Mandela’s condition had deteriorated and was critical.

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Monday’s press gathering highlighted the tension between the government’s reluctance to share more information about Mandela on the basis of doctor-patient confidentiality, and media appeals for thorough updates on a figure of global interest.

The government’s belated acknowledgement that an ambulance carrying Mandela to the hospital on June 8 broke down has fueled the debate about transparency versus the right to privacy.

Zuma said President Obama would go ahead with a visit to South Africa, despite concerns about Mandela’s health. Obama, who will arrive in Africa this week, is scheduled to visit Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania.

White House spokesman Jay Carney would not speculate about how Mandela’s health would affect Obama’s visit to South Africa.

Zuma, who in the past has given an overly sunny view of Mandela’s health, briefly spoke of his visit Sunday night to Mandela in the hospital in the capital. That visit was mentioned in a presidential statement on the same night that Mandela, who was previously described as being in serious but stable condition, had lapsed into critical condition within the previous 24 hours.

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