Amid enthusiastic applause, cheers, whistles and a standing ovation, South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela paid tribute December 5 to the nation's religious institutions.

Without them, he said, he would not be where he was today.

Nelson Mandela is the star speaker at the eight-day Parliament of the World's Religions (PWR), which ends in Cape Town on 8 December. Yesterday he addressed a plenary session of about 6500 spiritual leaders, their followers and delegates from 90 countries and a broad spectrum of religious traditions.

Mandela, in demand the world over for his charisma and for his work as a peacemaker and campaigner for justice, endeared himself to the PWR participants still further when he informed them he had originally been scheduled to be in the United States December 1 for an engagement that had been arranged long ago.

"But when I was told about this occasion, I changed my whole itinerary so that I could be here," he said. "This gathering at the close of our century serves to counter despairing cynicism and calls us to the recognition and reaffirmation of that which is great, generous and caring in the human spirit."

The 81-year-old former head of the liberation struggle against apartheid said his generation was the product of religious education. "We grew up at a time when the government of this country owed its duty only to whites, a minority of less than 15 percent. It took no interest whatsoever in our education." It was religious institutions?Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish?which bought land, built and equipped schools, employed teachers and paid them.

"Without the church religious institutions, I would never have been here today," Mandela said. "But to appreciate the importance of religion, you have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid, where you could see the cruelty of human beings to others in its naked form. It was again religious institutions who gave us hope that one day we would come out of prison."

This was why he respected religious institutions and tried as much as possible to read the sacred books of the different religions, he added.

Moving on from his personal testimony to the work of the PWR, Mandela said: "We shall have to reach deep into our faith as we approach the new century. Religion will have a crucial role to play in guiding and inspiring humanity to meet the enormous challenges that we face."

In South Africa, he said, there was a pressing need for efforts in material and social development and reconstruction to be accompanied by an "RDP of the soul"?a reference to the Reconstruction and Development Program, South Africa's post-apartheid strategy for economic and social development. "That is no less true of our entire world," Mandela said.

The globalization of the world economy and the advances in communications technology had drawn nations together. Those advances might, however, have contributed to a growing confusion of values, Mandela told the gathering.

Religions, like all other aspects of human life, faced their own challenges. "We have seen how religion at times provided the basis and even legitimization to violent expressions of intolerance and hatred. Tragically, religion sometimes seems to have lost its ability to hold people to good values and inspire them."

But few other dimensions of human life reached to such a massive following as religion, in every sphere of society, where even political leaders and the economically powerful had no say.

"Hence the importance of religion to draw once more on those resources of spirituality and innate goodness. In drawing upon its spiritual and communal resources, religion can be a powerful partner in meeting the challenges of power, alienation, the abuse of women and children, the destructive disregard for our national environment and of HIV/AIDS," Nelson Mandela said.

Nelson Mandela was honored with two awards during the PWR plenary session December 5?the Juliet Hollister Award and the Gandhi-King Award. Making the first award, Dr Karan Singh, chairman of the Temple of Understanding, described Mandela as "the symbol of the African renaissance, a man who completed the anti-colonial movement begun by Mahatma Gandhi." The annual Juliet Hollister award is named after the founder of the Temple of Understanding, one of the oldest interfaith movements in the United States. Started in 1960, the Temple of Understanding is based in New York and now works also in India and other countries.

The World Movement for Non-Violence presented Mandela with the Gandhi-King Award in recognition of his deep commitment to the principles and practices that guided the lives and actions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Related Elsewhere:

See our earlier coverage of the Parliament of the World's Religions here, as well as today's other article on the meeting, "First United Nations 'Spiritual Summit' Planned | 1,000 of world's spiritual leaders to meet in August 2000"

See also past Christianity Today articles about South Africa:

"Truth-Telling on Trial | Will racial reconciliation move beyond amnesty for those who admitted their errors?" (July 12, 1999)
"Truth and Consequences in South Africa | A PBS documentary asks what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission achieved." (April 5, 1999)
" 'How Much Truth Can We Take?' | South Africa's Christian experiment for finding healing from its violent past." (February 9, 1998)

See more coverage of Mandela's speech at the Parliament of the World's Religions South Africa site.

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