One of the most respected religious leaders in the world has apologised to the gay community for the way his Church ostracised them.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu also expressed regret for making them feel as if God had made a mistake by creating them to be who they are.

His speech was the highlight of A Celebration of Courage, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission’s (IGLHRC’s) annual gala awards ceremony held in San Francisco on Tuesday night.

The former leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa was presented with an OUTSPOKEN Award “recognising his leadership as a global ally of the LGBTI community whose outspokenness has contributed substantially to advancing the rights and understanding of LGBTI people everywhere,” said an IGLHRC spokesperson.

Archbishop Tutu made his speech in front of an audience of 500 at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco last night.

It was his first to a large gathering of the gay community in the United States.

“How sad it is that the Church should be so obsessed with this particular issue of human sexuality when God’s children are facing massive problems; poverty, disease, corruption, conflict,” he said.

In his 30-minute address, Archbishop Tutu said that for his part it was impossible to keep quiet “when people were frequently hounded … vilified, molested and even killed as targets of homophobia … for something they did not choose-their sexual orientation.”

In the face of this ongoing persecution, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient praised the gay community for being “compassionate, caring, self-sacrificing and refusing to be embittered.”

“When IGLHRC invited Archbishop Tutu to come to San Francisco to accept its OUTSPOKEN Award, we had no idea that our event would coincide with such a momentous time in the history of human rights activism,” said Paula Ettelbrick, IGLHRC’s executive director.

“The Archbishop’s speech at this unique historical moment affirms that human rights apply to each and every human being, in South Africa, in the United States, in China, and around the world.

“Activists and governments alike should heed the Archbishop’s words. He is a moral luminary whose inclusive approach to human rights advocacy paves the way for a better world.”

The importance of speaking out on human rights was also underscored by the context of the evening’s event, overlapping with a candle-lit vigil for Tibet in United Nations Plaza, and occurring only hours before anticipated protests as the Olympic torch journeys through San Francisco on its way to Beijing, China, for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.