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Dharamsala: - Archbishop Desmond Tutu's office yesterday made a last-ditch appeal for South Africa to grant His Holiness the Dalai Lama a visa to attend his 80th birthday celebrations on Friday. Delays with the visa have forced His Holiness to cancel his trip, which would also have included a lecture this weekend.

Deputy President Motlanthe told newspapers yesterday, "I don't see why it should be an issue at all," to which Archbishop Tutu's Peace Centre responded, "Could you please announce unequivocally to the nation that a visa will be granted to His Holiness and he is free to travel to South Africa immediately.

"We feel a grave injustice has been done in the manner in which this matter has been handled, and tremendous disrespect has been shown to two of the world's greatest spiritual leaders of our times."

Archbishop Tutu commented that President Jacob Zuma's administration was "worse than the Apartheid government," and in an interview with AFP said it was caving in to China.

"The deputy president says 'This thing was in the pipeline.' In the pipeline? It's not weeks before [His Holiness] should have left - it's hours. And why have [they] kept it all so much in abeyance and making everybody uncertain? Why?" Tutu said.

The South African government has denied any influence from China over the visa issue, and accused His Holiness of being late in handing in his application. His Holiness' spokesman, Tenzin Taklha, said his office began the application process in June and that, by Tuesday, the South African embassy in India had stopped returning their calls.

Around 500 people marched through the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg yesterday, where His Holiness would have spoken next week, in protest at the visa situation.

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