JOHANNESBURG — Hundreds of South Africans filled a historic church Sunday morning to pray for former president Nelson Mandela after his release from a local hospital earlier this week.
Rev. Benedict Mahlangu, a priest at the main Roman Catholic church in the black township of Soweto, lit a candle and asked congregants to pray for Mandela, who doctors said was treated for an acute respiratory tract infection.
More than 500 people gathered at Regina Mundi church, a former center of anti-apartheid protests and funerals. Bullet holes in the ceiling serve as reminders of a 1976 incident when police stormed the church during an anti-apartheid protest and fired live ammunition at students.
Mahlangu said his parishioners showed great concern during Mandela’s two-night hospital stay.
“Around here, there was no life, everything just stopped,” Mahlangu said. “They were just asking questions: ‘Why?’ And I said to them, ‘the man is 92 years old, he has worked for us, he has done his part and then we need to pray for him.'”
Churchgoers clad in colorful African fabrics swayed and harmonized with the choir, waving their arms to the hymns.
“All of this wouldn’t have been possible without him,” said Lerato Tsotetsi, a university student. “He gave us this new South Africa, and yes, he’s our father, so it’s only right. We all are his children, and we’re gathering to pray for him.”
In 1997, Mandela spoke at the church, and praised the institution for opening its arms to anti-apartheid protesters. He called Regina Mundi a “battlefield between forces of democracy and those who did not hesitate to violate a place of religion with tear gas, dogs and guns.”
Doctors discharged the Nobel peace laureate from the hospital Friday, and he is continuing to receive care from home. On Saturday, South Africa’s deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe visited Mandela at home and said Mandela was happy to have returned from the hospital.
Mandela is responding “very well” to medication and treatment, according to a statement released Sunday by Army Surgeon-General Vejaynand Ramlakan. The statement said Mandela had a “restful and peaceful night.” The army is charged with the care of former presidents in South Africa.
Mandela became the country’s first black president after serving 27 years in prison for his fight against racist rule.
“We don’t forget him,” said Eva Ntuli, a churchgoer. “Even the smallest children cry, ‘Dada, you must live for us.’ They pray everyday. We still need him.”