Australian Prime Minister Mr John Howard refused yesterday to join a million Australians in apologising to Aborigines for the tens of thousands of children forcibly separated from their parents over several generations.
Church bells rang around the country as thousands flocked to the first annual National Sorry Day ceremonies and services.
The Aboriginal flag flew from the national parliament in Canberra.
More than one million people were estimated to have signed "sorry books" in the lead-up to the commemorative day, marking the first anniversary of the release of a report on the so-called "stolen generations".
Roman Catholic leaders asked Aborigines for forgiveness, New South Wales governor Mr Gordon Samuels called on Australians to acknowledge past wrongs, and influential Victorian state premier Jeff Kennett said: "Yes, we can say sorry and mean it."
But Mr Howard steadfastly refused to make a formal apology on behalf of governments responsible for tearing hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families for a century up to the late 1960s.
Many of the children still bear the scars of the physical, sexual and psychological abuse which the Human Rights Commission reported they suffered in the white institutions and foster homes to which they were sent.
"Although in a personal sense many Australians will feel sorrow and regret in relation to past injustices suffered by sections of the Australian community, it is the view of my government that a formal national apology, of the type sought by others, is not appropriate," Mr Howard told parliament.
The government believed that the most appropriate way to help the 300,000 or so Aborigine community was to address their disadvantage in areas of health, housing and education, he said.
The Labor opposition and smaller parties condemned the government stance as a national embarrassment.
"If you are a person who has become aware of a great injustice and that you are part of a process which has assisted in producing those injustices it's a pretty poor, weak character who can't actually come out and say `sorry'," opposition leader Mr Kim Beazley said.
He also warned that the goal of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians was slipping away under the Howard government.
But Sir Ronald Wilson, Human Rights Commission president and co-author of the report on the stolen children, said it did not matter whether the Howard government was represented at any Sorry Day celebrations; it would not deter the movement for reconciliation which had sprung up among the people.
Aboriginal elder Ms Elizabeth King of the Dhaurt-wurrong people said there would never be reconciliation until such time as Mr Howard showed some leadership by apologising.
"It's an absolute disgrace and national embarrassment that the Prime Minister has refused to say sorry," she said. "There are many people like me who suffered horrendously under this brutal regime and who still have to live in appalling conditions."
The media were divided on the issue, with the Murdoch flagship the Australian backing the expression of regret but its sister paper, the Daily Telegraph, supporting Mr Howard's stance.
Organisers of National Sorry Day hoped it would become an annual holiday.