Mandela praises role of religion

Published January 1, 2000

Nelson Mandela broke a prior engagement to speak to the Parliament of World’s Religions. Mr. Mandela told the audience the work of religious leaders and institutions was crucial in bringing about his freedom and the fall of the racist apartheid government.

Cape Town

Without South Africa’s religious institutions, former president Nelson Mandela said he would not be where he is today.

Mr. Mandela was the star speaker at the eight-day Parliament of the World’s Religions which ended in Cape Town Dec. 8.

Mr. Mandela told the Parliament he had originally been scheduled to be in the United States on Dec. 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 per cent. 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,” Mr. 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 tried as much as possible to read the sacred books of the different religions, he added.

Moving to the work of the Parliament, Mr. 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.”

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, Mr. 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,” he said.


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