By Ed Cropley and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - With hymns and eulogies, South Africans of all colours and creeds remembered Nelson Mandela in a day of prayers on Sunday, holding him up as a symbol of freedom, forgiveness and hope for the nation and the world.
At churches, mosques, synagogues and community halls from the Limpopo River to the Cape, millions offered praise and reflected on a man celebrated as "Father of the Nation" and as a global beacon of integrity, rectitude and reconciliation.
Mandela, South Africa's first black president who steered his nation out of apartheid and into multi-racial democracy, died on Thursday at the age of 95 after months of illness.
Since then, the country has been gripped by an outpouring of emotion unrivalled since Mandela's release from 27 years of prison in 1990 and his subsequent election victory. Crowds have piled flowers, candles, balloons and messages outside his Johannesburg home.
At the cavernous Regina Mundi church in Soweto, South Africa's largest Catholic Church, hundreds of mourners, young and old, gathered to pray for Mandela and the nation's future.
"People are praying that there will be change, that we will come together," said Gladys Simelane, an office manager.
Mandela's former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, dressed in black, attended a Methodist service in the northern Johannesburg suburb of Bryanston, where President Jacob Zuma hailed the values of the country's most beloved statesman.
"He believed in forgiveness and he forgave even those who kept him in jail for 27 years," Zuma said in a eulogy.
"He stood for freedom. He fought against those who oppressed others. He wanted everyone to be free."
The day of prayers opens an official programme of mourning that includes a memorial service in a Johannesburg stadium on Tuesday and a state funeral next Sunday at Mandela's Eastern Cape ancestral home of Qunu - expected to be one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders in recent history.
Fifty-nine foreign heads of state or government have so far said they will attend the memorial or the funeral, a foreign ministry spokesman said. Large contingents of royalty and celebrities are also expected.
U.S. President Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and British Prime Minister David Cameron will be among those at Tuesday's memorial.
"The fact that international leaders are making their way to South Africa at such short notice reflects the special place President Mandela holds in the hearts of people around the globe," Presidency Minister Collins Chabane said.
Mandela's passing, though long expected as he succumbed slowly to a lung ailment dating back to his days in the notorious Robben Island penal colony, has plunged South Africans into soul-searching mode, six months before presidential and legislative elections.
President Jacob Zuma's ruling African National Congress faces a clamour of calls for better leadership after several years in which South Africa has experienced violent labour unrest, growing protests against poverty, crime and unemployment, and corruption scandals tainting Zuma's rule.
It remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, still some way from the "Rainbow Nation" ideal of shared prosperity and social harmony that Mandela proclaimed when he won the country's first multi-racial elections in 1994.
SERVICES IN CHURCHES, HALLS, PARKS
In Cape Town's St George's Cathedral, where anti-apartheid campaigners sought solace and refuge in the 1980s, some in the packed congregation of locals and tourists shed tears during a tribute to Mandela by the Anglican dean, Michael Weeder.
"He was an exposition of the African spirit of generosity," said Weeder. "And as he dies, he lives again and again. He is resurrected in every act of kindness."
At the Rivers Pentacostal Church in Johannesburg, mourners, some draped in South African flags, watched a video hailing the Nobel Peace Prize laureate as "a rare man, a true non-racist and a breed of politicians South Africa needs again".
In a country where many follow evangelical denominations, some held outdoor services in fields and parks.
Muslims in the mostly Indian neighbourhood of Lenasia in south Johannesburg held a commemoration in a local hall.
Newspaper editorials urged South Africans and the world to learn from a man hailed as "the Great Reconciler' for the way he bridged and broke the apartheid racial divide that split South Africa for centuries, and brought its people together.
"I AM NOT A SAINT"
Capturing the national mood of reverence, South Africa's most famous cartoonist, Zapiro, published a drawing of Mandela's tranquil face, eyes closed, sinking over the horizon like a setting sun on the sea, while an awed crowd looks on.
"I don't think we will ever have anybody like him. I compare him to Jesus Christ," said Shadrack Motau, a Soweto resident.
The week of mourning and funeral events split between Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria where Mandela's body will lie in state, and the Qunu funeral site, will present the government with its biggest logistical and organisational test since South Africa successfully hosted the 2010 World Cup.
Chabane said a new statue of Mandela would be unveiled at the government's Union Buildings on December 16, "Reconciliation Day". Under apartheid, this day commemorated the 1838 Battle of Blood River, in which fewer than 500 Afrikaners defeated more than 10,000 Zulus, but it was renamed in 1994 in a bid to heal the wounds of three centuries of white dominance.
Despite the global homage, and although streets across South Africa and the world bear his name, Mandela during his life had pushed back against excessive hero-worship.
"I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying," said the man with a beguiling smile who time and again charmed enemies, celebrities and ordinary people.