'God, please, please forgive us'

Time of article published Jul 21, 2008

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By Shaun Smillie

"God, please, please forgive us."

Before a multicultural congregation of about 3 000, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu begged God to forgive South Africans for the horrors they committed on foreigners during the recent xenophobic attacks.

All Anglican churches in Johannesburg were closed on Sunday for a common service of repentance and reconciliation for xenophobia held on the sports fields of St John's College in Houghton.

"Ja, we were on cloud nine, basking in world admiration," said Tutu, speaking of the transformation that ended apartheid in 1994. Then we came back to earth with a crash.

"The dream turned into a nightmare. We saw scenes that horrified the world. We went on a rampage - hunting down foreigners, black foreigners. We raped their women. It was all reminiscent of the ghastly necklacing of apartheid."

Tutu pointed out that the countries from which the victims came had given South Africans sanctuary during the apartheid era.

As Tutu spoke, images from the xenophobic attacks flashed across a big screen.

Then, turning to other negative aspects in South African society, the cleric said: "We must admit that things have gone badly wrong in our beautiful land.

"Hijackers still mow down victims, even after they have handed over their car keys; they steal old-age pensions off parents; and you have civil servants who are neither civil nor servants."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, head of the worldwide Anglican Church, gave a recorded address on a large screen.

He said the Church as a whole admired South Africans for their ability to forgive and reconcile.

"We are confident that you will be able to turn around the whole society again to peace," he said.

The congregation, which Tutu referred to as "the rainbow people of God", brought with them their unique ways of worship. Some beat drums, and the choir sang hymns in various languages.

As a sign of repentance, they pinned strips of hessian to their clothes and made crosses of ash on the hands of their neighbours.

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