CAPE TOWN - In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, as a young Imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque, I became inspired and active in interfaith and interreligious activities through the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP-SA). As a beneficiary of South Africa’s rich and robust interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, I believe that through my indefatigable passion for interfaith activities, I am not merely honouring, but also giving, profound thanks to the rich and diverse legacy bequeathed to us by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mphilo Tutu.
As his abiding friendships with the Dalai Lama and so many other interfaith leaders show, Desmond Tutu is the embodiment of interfaith and interreligious solidarity.
Our beloved country, the African continent, and indeed the world, can honour the memory and great legacy of Archbishop Tutu by living up to the egalitarian ideals he espoused and continuing the struggles for human dignity, social justice, and interfaith and interreligious solidarity that he champions during his life.
South Africa has a unique and unparalleled interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, thanks in large measure to the wise leadership and sterling contributions of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mphilo Tutu.
Emblematic of this robust interfaith legacy, is the fact that since the inception of South Africa’s non-racial and democratic parliament in 1994, its proceedings have consistently been inaugurated by interfaith prayers.
During his tenure as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) from 1978 to 1984, Bishop Tutu became one of the chief architects of South Africa’s robust interfaith solidarity movement.
In 1979 he asked the Reverend Dr. Gerrie Lubbe, an academic at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and a retired minister of the Via Christi congregation of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg, to represent the SACC at the third World Assembly of the World Conference of Religion and Peace (currently known as Religions for Peace), convened in Princeton, New Jersey, USA.
Four years later in 1983, he again asked Rev. Gerrie Lubbe to represent him at the first Interfaith Colloquium on apartheid organised by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston in London, UK.
Rev. Lubbe was joined by two other interfaith representatives from South Africa – a Hindu lawyer Ms. Yasmin Sooka and a Muslim member of the then Transvaal Indian Congress, Mr. Cassiem Saloojee.
The preamble to the first Interfaith Colloquium of Apartheid read as follows: “We met together from different religions of the world to respond from the viewpoint of faith to the fact of apartheid. We were united in concern at the suffering it causes in Southern Africa and the affront it presents to the moral conscience of humanity.”
The inspiration gained from the third WCRP World Assembly in the USA and the first Interfaith Colloquium in the UK, led to the establishment in 1984 under Tutu’s guidance of the South African Chapter of the World Conference of Religion and Peace (WCRP-SA). Bishop Tutu served not only as the WCRP-SA’s sponsor but also as its chief patron. Tutu’s interfaith representative, Rev. Dr. Gerrie Lubbe went on to serve as President of the WCRP-SA from 1984-1994.
This interfaith solidarity movement galvanised and solidified the interreligious contributions to the anti-apartheid Struggle. The WCRP-SA came to symbolise interfaith solidarity in the Struggle against apartheid.
On 14 September 1985 to honour its founding patron for his 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, the WCRP-SA inaugurated an annual Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture.
The first peace lecture which was to have been delivered by Bishop Tutu was banned by the apartheid police. On 13 September 1985, one day before the event was to take place, the apartheid Minister of Police served the following notice on WCRP-SA office bearers: “Whereas I … have reason to apprehend that the safety of members of the public and their property and the maintenance of the public order will be seriously endangered by a gathering being organised, or purported to be organised, by the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace … and since I deem it expedient for the public safety and the maintenance of public order, I hereby prohibit the said gathering.”
As a result of the banning order, WCRP-SA was forced to cancel the public lecture and to publish the written text of the inaugural Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture in a local newspaper.
In the following years, the Tutu Peace Lecture became a popular event at which different religious leaders declared “Apartheid a Heresy” from their respective faith perspectives. The first 10 lectures were delivered by Bishop Tutu; Maulana Farid Esack, a Muslim leader and author of Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism; Dr. Beyers Naude, founder and director of the banned Christian Institute; Rabbi Julia Neuberger, leader of the South London Liberal Synagogue in the United Kingdom; Mewa Ramgobin, president of the Natal Indian Congress, and Sewmugal Satgar, South African Hindu Maha Subha; Prof. Ali Mazrui, the world-renowned Kenyan scholar; Dr. Emilio Castro, general secretary of the World Council of Churches; Dr. Franz Auerbach, founder of Jews for Social Justice; Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi; and once again for the tenth lecture, Archbishop Tutu himself.
On the occasion of the tenth lecture, President Mandela attended and gave a formal response, telling the audience that “together, as partners, we will continue to celebrate our diversity in joint efforts to accomplish the historic mission of South Africa today: reconciliation and reconstruction.”
The inaugural Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture was but one of the important interfaith events of 1985, a year that undoubtedly brought interfaith dialogue and cooperation to the forefront when people of religion joined the Struggle in the streets.
The best example of this is probably the incident that took place on August 10, 1985, when people such as Dr. Allan Boesak, Dr. Lionel Louw, Imam Hassan Solomon, Maulana Farid Esack, and others were arrested on their way to attend a funeral in a black township in Cape Town. Several other interfaith prayer and protest meetings followed in other parts of the country.
In 1986 with his appointment as Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu transformed St. George’s Cathedral into what became known as “the people’s church”.
Under the leadership of Archbishop Tutu, St. George’s Cathedral emerged as a centre for interfaith mobilisation against apartheid in the City of Cape Town. People from all faiths or none, found inspiration and comfort in their struggle against the evil and oppressive system of apartheid in the Cathedral.
On 3 September 1989, three days before what would become the last elections for an apartheid parliament, a peaceful interfaith protest march in Cape Town was violently broken up by the apartheid police’s so-called riot squad.
The police pursued protesters up Adderley Street into the sanctuary of St. George’s Cathedral, attacking, beating, and arresting anyone they could catch. Archbishop Tutu issued a public statement in which he declared that the police had “desecrated Saint George’s Cathedral”.
Ten days later on 13 September 1989, Archbishop Tutu led one of South Africa’s largest mass interfaith and interreligious processions through the streets of Cape Town that symbolically announced the “reclaiming of the city”.
Along with Archbishop Tutu, the Reverend Allan Boesak and Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed, the leader of the Muslim Judicial Council, were at the head of that march in September 1989 to reclaim the city of Cape Town.
Thousands of Capetonians were brought together representing people of different faiths and religions, and people of none, all united in a common struggle against a common enemy – apartheid. Those days in September 1989 can be recalled as the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa.
At this special and blessed time of the celebration of the 90th birthday of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mhpilo Tutu, we give thanks and are grateful for his lifelong witness to human dignity, a just peace and interfaith solidarity and rich life.
We pray that the Arch enjoys better health in the years to come and grants his family, his caregivers, and our nation patience and loving kindness as we care for him during this twilight of his life.
Dr Omar is the Imam of the Claremont Main Road Masjid and a Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, US.