- - Sunday, December 8, 2013

JOHANNESBURG — South Africans filled the country’s churches, synagogues, mosques and temples Sunday, united in a day of prayer for Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid prisoner and first black president who led the nation to racial conciliation and soared to global prominence as a human rights leader.

They gathered to worship in sites varying from a majestic cathedral in Cape Town to a hilltop church where mourners banged goatskin drums and danced barefoot to the memory of Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95.

President Jacob Zuma attended the Methodist Church in Bryanston, one of the wealthiest suburbs in this city of more than 9 million people.

“We felt it important that we should have a day where all of us as South Africans can come together and to pray that we not forget some of the values he fought for,” Mr. Zuma said after the service.

How much the country has changed was evident at the Reformed Church, a Lutheran order favored by the Afrikaans people of mainly Dutch and French descent who dominated the white-minority government until the first democratic elections in 1994 brought Mr. Mandela to power about four years after his release from prison.

In a sermon to a largely white congregation at his Reformed Church in the capital city of Pretoria, pastor Niekie Lamprecht said Mr. Mandela’s words of hope and forgiveness led the way to a free South Africa.

“He said, ‘Let’s forgive,’ and he forgave. That created a space for people to feel safe and to accept change at a time when the expectation was that there was going to be a war,” he said. “In this Afrikaans church, we thank God for this person in our history.”

Inside the Morians Episcopal Apostolic Church in Mr. Mandela’s rural hometown of Qunu in Eastern Cape province, a man in a robe beat on a drum as men clapped and women danced.

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

In Cape Town, the Rev. Michael Weeder told worshippers at St. George’s Cathedral that South Africa still faces many challenges.

“The strength of the new South Africa will be measured in the distance that the poor and marginalized travel from the periphery to the center of our society,” he said.

Mr. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as part of life sentence for treason but was released in 1990 by President F.W. de Klerk. The two men negotiated an end to the racial system known as apartheid, and in 1993 shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Elections the following year resulted in resounding victory for Mr. Mandela and his African National Congress.

A memorial service Tuesday in Johannesburg is expected to draw the largest number of world leaders since that of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The United States will be represented by President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, along with former Presidents George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, plus more than 25 members of Congress. Private guests include television host Oprah Winfrey and software billionaire Bill Gates.

Britain’s Prince Charles, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande are also expected among the 53 heads of state, government leaders and foreign ministers at the memorial service.

Mr. Mandela’s body will lie in state at the Union Buildings, the seat of government in Pretoria, from Wednesday to Friday and then will be transported for burial to his rural hometown of Qunu in the Eastern Cape province.

The government said it had security issues under control in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

Mr. Mandela had three wives and six children. Late Sunday, the family issued a statement saying they had been “comforted by the knowledge that our pain and sorrow is shared by millions around the world.”

His first wife, Evelyn Masse, died in 2004. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, divorced from Mr. Mandela in 1996, and widow Graca Machel took part in the day of prayer and will attend the funeral.

Neither the family nor the government has released the cause of his death, but a close associate of Mr. Mandela’s who visited him shortly before he died said Mr. Mandela was not on life support and was fading quickly.

Bantu Holomisa, a deputy minister in Mr. Mandela’s government in the 1990s, told The Associated Press: “I’ve seen people who are on their last hours, and I could sense he that he was giving up.”

Mr. Mandela had been in intensive care since he was released from a hospital in Johannesburg on Sept. 1. He spent three months in treatment for a recurring lung infection.

Mr. Holomisa said, “I think [he] gave South Africans and the world enough warning to say, ‘Guys, I’ve batted well during my innings, and I’m now ready to go home.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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