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Mandela affirms WCC's work for human rights, sees challenges ahead

12/14/1998 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By United Methodist News Service

HARARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS) - The World Council of Churches inspired the opponents of apartheid in South Africa and struck fear into the hearts of those who supported the racist system of government there during the struggle for freedom, Nelson Mandela said.

"To us in South Africa … the World Council of Churches has always been known as the champion of the oppressed and the exploited," he said. "On the other hand, the name of the World Council of Churches struck fear into the hearts of those who ruled our country during the inhuman days of apartheid," he said.

Mandela, president of the Republic of South Africa, addressed the World Council of Churches' Eighth Assembly at the University of Zimbabwe Dec. 13. The school's Great Hall was filled to capacity with current and former delegates, as the WCC marked its 50th anniversary with a "Journey to Jubilee" program, followed by a recommitment service, dinner, and celebrations that
went into the night.

When Mandela entered the hall, the room erupted with applause, and the clamor continued as he slowly made his way amid a thick crowd to his seat on the front row. Accompanying him were Zimbabwe Executive President Robert Mugabe, WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser and WCC moderator His Holiness Aram I. Zimbabwe's national anthem was played, followed by South Africa's.

After Mandela was seated, Pauline Webb, a British Methodist and the first female officer of the WCC, recounted the highlights of past assemblies. When she described how the Fourth Assembly, in Uppsala, Sweden, launched the Programme to Combat Racism in 1968, a choir burst into song from the back of the hall. The South African choral group Imilonji Kantu entered, clad in long robes of white, black, gold, green, red and blue. They sang as they proceeded up the aisle, with a drummer pounding out the beat. Mandela rose from his seat and joined them on stage, moving to the music and drawing loud approval from the assembly.

In his remarks, Mandela praised the ecumenical fellowship for its work in human rights. "The World Council of Churches helped to voice the international community's insistence that human rights are the rights of all people everywhere."

The WCC encouraged and inspired South Africans when it initiated its Programme to Combat Racism and gave support to the liberation struggle, Mandela said. The WCC was banned from South Africa until shortly before the collapse of the apartheid system.

The South African leader also noted the role that the churches and missions played in educating the people at a time when education was denied them by the government.

"My generation is the product of church education," Mandela said. "Without the missions and other religious educators, I would not have been here today."

Mandela attended Methodist schools and Sunday schools as a youth. His wife, Graca Machel, the former first lady of Mozambique, is a United Methodist.

"I will never have sufficient words to thank the missions for what they did for us."

Mandela outlined the work that lies ahead for Africa: promoting development, advancing democracy, eradicating HIV/AIDS, rooting out corruption and greed, and ensuring human rights.

"The rights that have been gained, and that have been declared universal, will remain hollow shells and our freedom incomplete if they do not bring an end to the curse of hunger, disease, ignorance and homelessness which blight the lives of millions in our country, in Africa and across the globe," he said.

His continent, he said, "dreams of an African renaissance" in which peace, democracy, human rights, growth and development are a reality for all Africans, he said.

"Most of the countries in the continent are at peace with themselves and their neighbors," he said. Until the recent global economic problems, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa had average economic growth of about 5 percent for almost a decade, he said.

"Regional cooperation is a reality," he said. However, conflicts in the Sudan, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo "are a great concern," he said. "Such conflicts have the capacity to set back all our efforts."

He wanted to make clear, he said, that "Africa generally and our region in particular has highly competent and committed experienced leaders, and I have no doubt they will be able to resolve these conflicts to the satisfaction of everybody."

Noting the WCC's deep commitment to fighting racism 30 years ago, Mandela called upon the council "to show that same engagement for the more difficult struggle" of development.

Ways must be found to increase investment in Africa, he said, and he added his voice to those of earlier speakers at the WCC by calling for removing the barrier of debt that "affects Africa more than any other region."

Institutions that regulate economic systems should be reoriented so that world economic growth translates into development, he said.

Today's leaders must find ways in which the world economy can be used to address the problem of poverty, he said. That is a "formidable but achievable task," he said.

Mandela spent nearly 30 years as a political prisoner in South Africa, winning release with the collapse of apartheid and becoming his country's first democratically elected president. Mandela's presence at the WCC assembly "is a living example of the sanctity and humanity of persons of every race," said Philip Potter, a Methodist and former WCC general secretary.

Speaking after Mandela, Potter reflected on the WCC's progress during its first 50 years and looked ahead to challenges that it faces.

"Christians are now willing to face openly the divisions which have taken place, especially those of the past 1,000 years," he said. "The historic churches are now all on speaking terms. Within the last 40 years, there have been remarkable comings together and conversations."

Through the WCC's Faith and Order Commission, steps have been taken toward increased fellowship, he said.

"Religious liberty is being more clearly observed," he said.

The WCC also has intensified its central task of furthering the mission of the church, the proclamation of the Gospel and the ministry of health and healing, he said. There has been steady growth in dialogue among the churches, and in several cases, cooperation on concerns of human rights and peace "is fruitfully taking place," he said.

"In the last 20 years, however, there has been an unhappy increase in ethno- religious conflicts, which call for more concerted ecumenical attention than has been given," he said. As economic and financial pressures accelerate, "so do the violent reactions of ethno-religious groupings in many countries," he said.

The task facing the WCC and other religious groups is "to intensify the dialogue of action and to seek ways to overcome violence and encourage cooperation for human well-being," he said.

Potter noted that the WCC and other international organizations have launched many activities that have effected change in the world, breaking down barriers between people, promoting the "one human family in justice and peace, and upholding the integrity of creation," he said.

Working among refugees, displaced people and migrants will continue to be important in a world broken with war and conflict, he said.

The Programme to Combat Racism has highlighted the discrimination against people because of their race and the marginalization of indigenous people, he said. "This task must urgently be carried out with eager determination."

The WCC has challenged the "age-old discrimination against women in church and society," he said. With the conclusion of the WCC's Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, a new stage has been reached in recognizing the "God- given equality of women and men," he said, drawing applause.

Poverty and unemployment are increasing in both rich and poor countries, and those problems must be attacked, he said.

The 20th century will transmit a legacy of weapons of mass destruction and conflicts into the next century, he said. It is the duty of the WCC, other religious bodies and the United Nations "to work with ceaseless vigilance" for peace.

He also charged the WCC with the duty of addressing poverty, unemployment and environmental concerns around the world, and declaring the unity of God's people, proclaiming the Gospel and advancing the well-being of all people.

Potter, who spoke to the WCC's first assembly in Amsterdam in 1948 as a youth representative, said he hoped the young people at the Eighth Assembly would be present at the next jubilee, in 2048, to testify about the organization's continuing work.

He concluded by drawing on the assembly's theme, "Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope," saying the "task is now before us, whatever the circumstances and the resources may be. For that, we must constantly turn to God and rejoice in hope, knowing that hope is love in action And to God be the glory."

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*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.

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