People living in immense suffering cannot be forced to forgive their enemies, but helping them do so is the best way to bring about lasting peace, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said yesterday.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner said when wars come to an end, only forgiveness enables people to fully move away from conflict.
Drawing on experiences in South Africa, where he helped organise non-violent protests against apartheid and later led the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Archbishop described his amazement at seeing black victims of violently racist white rule forgive their oppressors.
"You couldn't have predicted what was going to happen," he said.
"People who should have been consumed by bitterness and hatred would be remarkably magnanimous. Human beings are very, very odd creatures; [victims] sometimes wanted to embrace people who had committed the most ghastly atrocities."
The acts of forgiveness by those victims, he said, helped South Africa turn itself around after apartheid to avoid what could have become a "racial bloodbath". "You can't make anybody forgive another," the Archbishop warned.
"And yet, when that occurs, it is like saying: 'I give you another opportunity.' To forgive is to say: 'I give you another chance to make a new beginning.' Forgiving is never easy and it is never cheap. It isn't anything that you can demand of others. But when it happens it has an incredible capacity to change a situation."
The Archbishop, 78, made his comments during a debate in London for the Forgiveness Project, a charity that helps opposed factions in conflict zones reconcile.
Those sharing a platform with Archbishop Tutu at the debate, which The Independent sponsored, included perpetrators of violence and its victims. Jo Berry, whose father, Sir Anthony Berry, was killed in the Brighton bombing, sat alongside Pat Magee, the IRA activist who planted the bomb. They were joined by Mary Kayitesi Blewitt, a Tutsi who survived the Hutu-led Rwandan genocide.
Ms Berry and Mr Magee both spoke of the need to acknowledge why people commit violence, and the hurt their actions cause victims.
But Mrs Blewitt, who lost 50 members of her family in the genocide, said forgiveness was difficult when so many perpetrators of the Rwandan violence had yet to be held to account for their actions.
"The reason we still have violence in our community is because it is so easy to forgive," she said. "I subscribe to the notion of forgiveness. But forgiveness without justice, to me, is a delayed atrocity."