Anti-apartheid icon Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, was on Thursday awarded the $1.7-million Templeton Prize for his lifelong work to promote "love and forgiveness".
The 81-year-old Nobel peace laureate, who rose to fame in the 1980s as a vocal opponent of South Africa's white-minority apartheid regime, will be presented with the award at a ceremony in London on May 21.
The Templeton Prize, one of the world's largest annual awards, is given each year to a living person who has made "an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension".
Last year's winner was the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who gave the money to charity.
Tutu thanked "all the wonderful people who accepted me as their leader at home" for the prize, which is administered by the US-based Templeton Foundation.
"When you are in a crowd and you stand out from the crowd it's usually because you are being carried on the shoulders of others," he said.
The Templeton Foundation hailed Tutu's "deep faith and commitment to prayer and worship".
The prize was set up in 1972 by the late investor and philanthropist John Templeton. Its first winner, in 1973, was Mother Teresa.
Tutu spoke out vigorously against apartheid during the years when Nelson Mandela was in prison. He won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work, which he said has always been motivated by religion.
When Mandela became president he chose Tutu to chair South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated crimes committed by all sides during apartheid.
Tutu has since given advice to communities elsewhere seeking reconciliation in the wake of conflict, including Northern Ireland and the Solomon Islands.
Tutu's New York-based foundation said the prize was "extra-special" because it recognised his spirituality.
"He is an activist who for more than forty years has spoken truth to power," said his daughter Mpho Tutu, the foundation's executive director.
"But he is, at heart, a pastor."
Congratulating Tutu, South African President Jacob Zuma said the award was "well-deserved".
"We are extremely proud of this recognition to one of our own, the revered archbishop Tutu," he said.
"Even in his retirement, the archbishop continues to inspire our country and its people to do more every day to realise the universal goal of a better life for all. This honour is therefore well-deserved indeed."
Cape Town's St George's Cathedral, where Tutu served as archbishop from 1986 to 1996, will host its own celebration of the prize on April 11.