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PRESIDENT Nelson Mandela chose to speak at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies during his brief visit last week to the United Kingdom in order to make good his debt to religious leaders who had contributed to the struggle against apartheid.
Breaking off from his prepared script, Mandela said he had "pushed aside every item" in his diary when he received the invitation "from a religious institution" three months ago.
Such was his debt to religious leaders and missionaries who educated black people in mission schools at a time when the National Party government was trying to deprive them of educational opportunities.
Mandela's friendship with the Saudi royal family might have further obliged him to accept the invitation. The Saudi Arabian king has backed the centre, donating R150- million to build larger premises.
But planning permission is yet to be granted, as a number of Oxford's worthies have raised objections to the proposed architecture, protesting against the prospect of a 33m minaret and an imposing dome in the heart of the city of English spires.
There is a suspicion that these aesthetic protests might be sheltering a baser emotion - cultural prejudice - and it is this very sentiment that the centre is trying to combat, now with the help of Mandela's endorsement.
"For the Oxford Centre," director Professor Farhan Nizami told Mandela in his speech of welcome, "this visit by Your Excellency is an extraordinary honour, an extraordinary favour. Your willingness to lend your moral authority to the aim of the centre surely will inspire others to recognise the necessity of tolerance and mutual respect between different cultural traditions in the world."
The aim of the 12-year-old centre is "to encourage a more informed understanding of the Islamic world and, through such understanding, to promote tolerance and co- operation between people of different cultures and religions".
While in Oxford, Mandela and his partner, Graa Machel, were the guests of a prominent member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Bandar of Al Sultan.
Mandela has further supported the centre, agreeing to the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Fellowship for the Study of the Islamic World. This fellowship will provide opportunities for study at Oxford, in any area of the arts or humanities.
Mandela took up the themes of reconciliation and renaissance in his speech to a packed auditorium who gave him standing ovations before and after his address.
`What encourages me to add my humble contribution is the centre's commitment to the promotion of understanding, tolerance and co-operation as essential conditions for advancing the welfare of all. I am emboldened by a desire that the presence of Africa should be felt in the intellectual quest the centre seeks to foster.
"As we break free from a bi-polar view of the world, the centuries-old discourse about relations between Islam and the West is also naturally giving way to a more multi-faceted framework of thought," he said.
"Today Islam and Christianity represent major religions in Africa, with Islam in fact that majority religion on the continent. These are not alien presences, but African religions. They are part of Africa's identity ..."
On a lighter note, Mandela joked about the popularity of Muslim priests who came to visit prisoners on Robben Island, saying that their visits were longed for because they bought such tasty samoosas and delicacies with them, rather than just the words of the Qur'an.
Mandela's address at Oxford was his longest exposure to public scrutiny during his visit. His programme was planned to keep him away from the crowds, and pleas were made through Oxford newspapers for the public not to mob him in a brief five-minute walkabout after he received the Freedom of the City, implying his frailty.