Nobel peace prize winners on Thursday showered praise on Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille for contesting President Jacob Zuma’s refusal to grant the Dalai Lama an entry visa to South Africa.
Zuma’s stance on the visa issue, aimed at maintaining good relations with China, led to a planned summit of Nobel winners in Cape Town being relocated to Rome, a move that de Lille supported despite her city’s loss of a prestigious event that was supposed to mark the first anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death.
“To deny the Dalai Lama a visa is the kind of thing that happened in the oppressive years of apartheid when people were not allowed to freely enter our country,” de Lille said at a press conference ahead of the rescheduled meeting, which is being held from Friday to Sunday in the Italian capital.
She said she hoped that Cape Town would eventually get the chance to host the event.
“One day the government will realise that it can’t stop the movement for peace around the world.”
Northern Ireland peace campaigner Mairead Maguire, who jointly won the 1976 peace prize, was among several laureates to laud de Lille’s action.
“We all agreed that we could not go ahead with the conference in South Africa in the circumstances, and the courage of the mayoress in standing by that decision is very, very inspiring,” Maguire said.
Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni women’s rights activist who won the Nobel in 2011, joked: “I am sure that we will do it again in Cape Town … when she is the president of South Africa!”
Landmines campaigner Jody Williams, the 1997 winner, added: “It was very disturbing for all of us. We hoped to be able to celebrate the legacy of Nelson Mandela and it didn’t work out for political reasons which is very tragic.
“But I want to praise the mayor for the courage she showed in standing up to her own government and for backing our decision to take the summit out of her beautiful city.”
Speaking to AFP, Williams revealed that Rome mayor Ignazio Marino had been visited by Chinese officials and warned there would be consequences for the decision to step into the breach created by the South African visa decision.
Earlier in the day, a spokesman for Pope Francis confirmed that the pontiff would not be meeting the Dalai Lama during his time in Rome.
Sources said the Vatican decision to sidestep an opportunity to meet the 79-year-old Buddhist leader reflects concern over what would inevitably be a furious Chinese reaction, and a desire not to jeopordize efforts to build bridges with Beijing or risk retaliation against the country’s small Catholic community.
“Pope Francis obviously holds the Dalai Lama in very high regard but he will not be meeting any of the Nobel laureates,” the Vatican spokesman said, adding that the pontiff would be sending a video message to their conference.
It is now more than eight years since the Dalai Lama was last granted a papal audience by Francis’s predecessor Benoit XVI in October 2006.
Critics say the apparent reluctance to meet the Tibetan leader is at odds with the pope’s emphasis on interfaith dialogue. Relations with Buddhism are expected to be a central theme of Francis’s visit to Sri Lanka next month.
“If the pope is avoiding his Holiness then I would find that very, very upsetting, especially from this pope,” Williams said.
The Vatican has not had diplomatic relations with China since they were broken off by Mao in 1951.
On a visit to South Korea in August, the pope called for a normalisation of relations, but insisted that could only happen if China’s Catholics are accorded the right to exercise their religion freely, and when the Vatican is allowed to appoint bishops in the world’s most populous country.
Researchers say there are about 12 million practising Catholics in China, half of whom attend services under the auspices of a state-controlled association. The other half are involved in clandestine churches which swear allegiance to the Vatican. SAPA