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Ex-Gov. Ryan speaks at Chicago Mandela tribute

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan speaks during memorial service for NelsMandelBeloved Community Christian Church God Christ Sunday Chicago. Mandelwas buried

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan speaks during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the Beloved Community Christian Church of God in Christ on Sunday in Chicago. Mandela was buried Sunday in South Africa. Brian Kersey/AP

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Updated: January 17, 2014 6:30AM

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan told those in attendance at a memorial service Sunday that Nelson Mandela played a role in his 2003 decision to empty death row.

The public appearance at the Chicago church where U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush preaches was among the Republican former governor’s first since being released from federal prison earlier this year on wide-ranging corruption charges.

His nearly five-minute speech was met with hearty applause, particularly as he described emptying death row and commuting inmates’ sentences. The move eventually led to Illinois abolishing the death penalty in 2011.

Ryan, 79, described a 2000 meeting with Mandela in South Africa while he was governor and on a trade mission. The half-hour meeting was “filled with emotion and inspiration,” Ryan said.

Three years later, as Ryan was considering what to do — and before he concluded that Illinois’ capital punishment law was flawed — he received a call from Mandela. Ryan didn’t go into details but praised the late leader, who was buried Sunday in Qunu, South Africa.

“The world has been forever blessed by the work and deeds of Nelson Mandela,” Ryan told attendees.

The Chicago event was billed as the “people’s tribute” and including speeches by Rush, fellow Chicago Democrat U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, Nation of Islam officials, community activists and consuls general based from several countries in Chicago.

A banner with Mandela’s portrait hung above the pulpit.

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