Desmond Tutu warns against rising religious fundamentalism in U.N. speech

Religious fundamentalism is on the rise, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu warned the United Nations Wednesday, and he pointed to Iraq as a place where religious divisions threaten to disrupt the rebuilding of a shattered nation.

But the retired South African archbishop, who addressed a standing room-only crowd as part of a lecture series at the United Nations, also urged diplomats to embrace moderate religious values — charity and understanding — as a basis for their work.

In some countries, religious extremism has stepped into the power vacuums left by fall of dictatorships and the end of the Cold War, Tutu said.

"That is when fundamentalisms arise, because people then are deeply distressed by complexity," he said. "They look for simplistic answers."

The Anglican cleric cited ethnic violence between Serbs and Muslims after the fall of communism in Yugoslavia, and said as a result of rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims since the ouster of Saddam Hussein "the power situation has been exacerbated."

Tutu, whose activism against apartheid won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, said South Africa faced a similar vacuum in the 1990s after the end of white rule. It avoided racial violence in part because of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he headed.

Tutu has recently criticized the U.S.-led war in Iraq, calling it "immoral" and saying it left the world a more dangerous place. On Wednesday he accused President Bush of oversimplifying when he labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea an "axis of evil" in January 2002.

"People buy into that because they don't want to sit down and work out the complex nature of things," Tutu said.

The 72-year-old cleric reflected on his years as an anti-apartheid campaigner, saying one of his proudest moments was marching with Jewish and Muslim leaders during protests against the white government in 1989.

He also spoke of the psychological scars of apartheid, saying he was uneasy when he flew for the first time with an all-black flight crew on an African airline.

"I am shocked that I said to myself, 'There is no white man in there. Are these black guys going to be able to land?' I didn't know I had been so conditioned by apartheid."