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S.Africa’s Tutu marks 80th birthday in historic cathedral

South Africa’s Desmond Tutu celebrated his 80th birthday Friday in the cathedral where he once rallied against white rule, using his famed charisma to soothe raw feelings over the Dalai Lama’s absence.

St George’s Cathedral, where Tutu served as the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town until 1996, was filled with family and well-wishers from U2 frontman and campaigner Bono to Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe sat in the front pew across from Tutu’s family, but notably absent was President Jacob Zuma whose government the “Arch” has accused of kowtowing to China by not granting entry to the Dalai Lama.

Zuma offered a conciliatory branch to Tutu on Friday with a birthday message saying that the activist plays an important role in South Africa, and that his efforts had aided the liberation movement.

“Archbishop Tutu has a special place in the hearts of our people for the manner in which he stood up against the apartheid state, speaking out against injustice and oppression,” he said.

“As one of our four Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, we respect him, love him and always welcome his counsel on issues.”

Tutu also reached out to Motlanthe, hugging him in front of the church.

“Thank you so very much for coming, despite some of the hiccups that we have had,” Tutu told Motlanthe, in the only reference to the visa drama.

Tutu’s outrage at Zuma — whom he has criticised for graft scandals that never made it to trial — boiled over again this week when the Dalai Lama cancelled his planned visit for the birthday, saying he had not received a visa in time.

“I am warning you that we will pray as we prayed for the downfall of the apartheid government, we will pray for the downfall of a government that misrepresents us,” Tutu said Tuesday.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, a longtime friend of Tutu’s and a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, is now set to give a speech Saturday by video link.

The tensions of the week, which have dominated South Africa’s front pages, were pushed to the side Friday as the pews of St George’s filled and birthday presents piled at the entrance.

Combining African drums and incense-laden church ceremony, the multi-lingual service paid tribute to the man regarded as South Africa’s moral conscience with the laughter and warmth that he is famed for.

“With every year that passes, you seem more ageless or even more youthful. But this particular anniversary reminds us all how much we owe to your decades of love and service to the reign of God and the family of God’s people,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said in a message read from the altar.

The public service was broadcast on national television. As tributes poured in, Tutu covered his eyes with a handkerchief, embraced by Leah, his wife of 56 years.

The current archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, praised Tutu’s bravery and spirituality.

“Rooted in that belief, rooted in that faith, he went into places many people feared to tread,” he said.

“He really stressed the importance of the dignity of difference,” he added.

After the service, Tutu danced out of the cathedral and left with his family and invited friends for a private picnic.

On Saturday, Tutu’s Peace Centre said the Dalai Lama will give a lecture via a live video link from Dharamshala, his home in exile in northern India, after a last-ditch appeal to the government to grant him a visa failed.

The event will be broadcast live by South Africa’s public television network and live-streamed over the Internet.