RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — THE Dutch Reformed Church, the major Afrikaner church which justified race laws for 40 years, has joined other Christians in declaring apartheid a sin and admitting its responsibility for the suffering of millions of blacks. But it stopped short of backing fully a position adopted by 80 Christian churches at a five-day conference here that called for a multiparty democracy and a redistribution of wealth.
The DRC, which counts 90 percent of senior government officials and 70 percent of legislators among its 1.7-million adherents, balked at sections of the joint declaration.
``We are not allowed to move beyond the position of our church synod,'' said Prof. Pieter Potgieter, the new DRC moderator. ``It is not that we are opposed to one person, one vote.... It is just that we do not feel it is a matter for the church to decide.''
But the DRC's participation in the joint declaration is seen as a powerful message to politicians of the ruling National Party, which had hoped to obtain church endorsement for President Frederik de Klerk's reform moves.
``We do hope that all our church members will share in this confession,'' said Professor Potgieter. ``Insofar as politicians are part of the church, we hope that they would do the same.''
The first rift between the main body of Christian churches and the Dutch Reformed churches occurred 30 years ago at the Cottesloe Conference organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC). The move began a long international and internal isolation that has seen the Reformed churches suspended by ecumenical bodies such as the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the WCC.
In most South African churches, black members form the majority and have taken the lead in denouncing apartheid. (About 27 million of South Africa's 35 million people are regarded as Christians.) But the Dutch Reformed churches have insulated themselves by maintaining separate churches for black, mixed-race, and Indian South Africans.
The October Synod of the white DRC had decided in principle to unite with the black sister churches. But a formula has not yet been found in a society still divided by residential and social segregation. The smaller Nederduits Hervormde Kerk (NHK), and the right-wing splinter church, the Afrikaner Protestante Kerk (APK), declined invitations to attend the conference. And residual mistrust that emerged here between the main Afrikaner church and its black and mixed-race sister churches, indicated that reconciliation will be slow.
``Leaders of the white DRC have shown that they are masters of words,'' said Rev. Nicholas Apollis of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church. ``What they say can be interpreted in more than one way.''
At previous meetings with leaders of sister churches, white DRC leaders appear to have confessed their responsibility for apartheid - and then later devalued the gesture by qualifying what they meant by apartheid.
The process of reconciliation was furthered by a spontaneous event at the conference. In an emotional exchange with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Prof. Willie Jonker of Stellenbosch University's theology faculty became the first white DRC member to publicly ``confess'' the ``sin'' of apartheid at a multiracial gathering.
``I confess before you and before the Lord,'' Professor Jonker told the hushed conference, ``not only my own sin and guilt and my personal responsibility for political, social, economic, and structural wrongs that have been done to many of you ... but vicariously I dare also to do that in the name of the DRC, of which I am a member, and on behalf of the Afrikaner people as a whole.'' The statement was endorsed by Potgieter, who said it represented the church's position.
Mr. Tutu accepted Jonker's confession, thus transforming the conference. ``An incredible thing has happened here,'' said the Rev. Frank Chikane, chairman of the conference and general secretary of the ecumenical South African Council of Churches.
But the mood soured somewhat when the DRC delegates, facing severe pressure from their grass-roots membership, were not able to go along with some aspects of the declaration. Pressure on the DRC not to denounce apartheid unconditionally included an angry telephone call to Jonker from former President Pieter Botha. Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht, an ordained DRC minister, also distanced himself and his party from Jonker's statement.
Rev. Barney Pityana, a South African exile who was a coordinator of the conference, said, ``I was very upset that the DRC disagreed with key aspects of the declaration.... I was even more sad that much of the goodwill they had earned in the earlier part of the conference is now in doubt.''
The Rev. Beyers Naude, a former DRC minister who quit the church 30 years ago over apartheid, warned that a further white exodus from the DRC was a price the church may have to pay for obedience to the Christian gospel.
``There can be no reconciliation without justice and no justice without restitution.... So much injustice has been inflicted on so many millions of people over so many decades - in so many spheres,'' said Mr. Naude.
He said he was confident that a political solution would be found, but that the quest for economic justice would be more daunting.
``This may become increasingly the most important task of the church.''