Relaymedia

Pope Francis, Billy Graham Pay Tribute to Nelson Mandela

( [email protected] ) Dec 09, 2013 04:08 PM EST

Nelson Mandela Memorial
Flowers and tributes are left on the Nelson Mandela statue on Parliament Square in London December 6, 2013. South African anti-apartheid hero Mandela died peacefully at home at the age of 95 on Thursday after months fighting a lung infection, plunging his nation and the world into mourning for a man revered as a moral giant. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

The Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Pope Francis paid tribute to Nelson Mandela for his faithful pursuit of peace and racial reconciliation, in light of his recent passing.

Nelson Mandela suffered 27 years in prison after opposing racial oppression of the country's black majority under the apartheid government in South Africa. Upon his release from prison, Mandela pursued peace, racial reconciliation, and the abolishment of apartheid. He became the country's first democratically elected and African president in 1994, and died Thursday at the age of 95. He is being mourned and celebrated around the world.

The Reverend Billy Graham never met Nelson Mandela, but shared his passion for racial reconciliation, both in South Africa and in the United States. Graham was first invited to hold crusade meetings in South Africa in the 1950s, but did not accept the invitation because of racial segregation in the country.

"My wife and I have prayed for the country of South Africa since 1951," said Graham when Mandela was elected president; he accepted the invitation to preach in the country in the 1970s, at one of the country's first racially integrated public meetings. "Christianity is not a white man's religion ... don't let anybody ever tell you that it's white or black. Christ belongs to all people," proclaimed Graham during his South African crusade.

Graham and Mandela corresponded via letters while Mandela was still in prison, and the evangelist rejoiced upon Mandela's release and subsequent election to the presidency. "The amazing events surrounding the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa are a testimony to us all of this great man's resiliency in the face of 27 years of imprisonment," he said.

Pope Francis also paid tribute to the former South African leader. "It was with sadness that I learned of the death of former President Nelson Mandela ... I ask the Lord to console and strengthen all who mourn his loss," he said in a telegram to the South African President Jacob Zuma. Pope Francis prays that Mandela's example will "inspire generations of South Africans to put justice and the common good at the forefront of their political aspirations."

Nelson Mandela Memorial
Nelson Mandela's memorial on Tuesday at Johannesburg's FNB Stadium promises to be one of the largest such gatherings in generations. Picture: Reuters / Paul McErlane

The former South African president will be buried Sunday, with a memorial on Tuesday at a stadium in Johannesburg. According to CNN, several world leaders will attend Tuesday's memorial and President Barack Obama will give an address. Former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter also plan to attend, along with British Prime Minister David Cameron and entertainers Bono and Oprah Winfrey.