- Associated Press - Sunday, December 8, 2013

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africans of all races flocked to houses of worship Sunday for a national day of prayer and reflection to honor Nelson Mandela as a large contingent of foreign dignitaries, including royalty, began arriving in the country to pay their final respects to the liberation-struggle icon.

The government said Sunday that 53 heads of state and government as well as a broad range of eminent persons had confirmed they would be attending a national memorial service and state funeral for the country’s first black and democratically elected president. The memorial service is expected to be one of the biggest in modern times.

Hundreds attended Mass at the Regina Mundi Church, which was at the epicenter of the Soweto township uprising in 1976 against white rule. The Rev. Sebastian J. Rossouw described Mr. Mandela as “moonlight,” saying he offered a guiding light for South Africa.

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“Madiba did not doubt the light,” Father Rossouw said, referring to Mr. Mandela by his clan name. “He paved the way for a better future, but he cannot do it alone.”

During the service, worshippers offered special prayers for the anti-apartheid leader and lit a candle in his honor in front of the altar. Off to the side of the sanctuary was a black-and-white photo of Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95.

Mr. Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, joined one of his grandsons, Mandla Mandela, and South African President Jacob Zuma in a prayer service in a Methodist church in Johannesburg.

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“We felt it important that we should have a day where all of us as South Africans can come together and pray for our first democratic president and reflect on his legacy,” Mr. Zuma said. “But it is also to pray for our nation … to pray that we not forget some of the values he fought for.”

Mr. Zuma said that Mr. Mandela had forgiven even those who had kept him in prison for 27 years and that he had opposed both white and black domination.

Inside a small, hilltop church behind Mr. Mandela’s property in the eastern village of Qunu, where he will be buried next Sunday, about 50 people held a raucous, celebratory service. A man in a blue robe set the tempo by banging on a goatskin drum. Men, clapping, formed a tight huddle as mostly barefoot women danced on the cement floor in a circle around them.

The Rev. Joshua Mzingelwa, the leader of Morians Episcopal Apostolic Church, delivered a loud, throaty sermon.

“There is still hope in the hardship that you are facing daily,” Mr. Mzingelwa told the congregation.

In an affluent and predominantly white suburb of the capital of Pretoria, parishioners prayed for Mr. Mandela at what was once a worship center for pro-apartheid government and business leaders. They prayed in silence as a picture of Mr. Mandela was beamed onto the wall above the church’s pulpit, the event starkly highlighting the enormous changes that have come to this country.

The Rev. Niekie Lamprecht, pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church of Pretoria East, said that the congregation’s overwhelmingly white 1,600 parishioners have changed and that Mr. Mandela himself was the driving force. The idea of showing a picture of him inside the church two decades ago would have been unthinkable.

“What helped the white people of South Africa was Mr. Mandela’s attitude,” Mr. Lamprecht said. “He said, ‘Let’s forgive,’ and he forgave. That created a space for people to feel safe … at a time when the expectation was that there was going to be a war.”

A service was also held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, where a prayer was said for a man whose journey from prisoner to president inspired the world.

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