Row over race reform splits Afrikaner church

The row over political reforms that split South Africa's ruling National Party is threatening to cause a blistering confrontation in the country's biggest all-white Afrikaner church, the Dutch Reformed Church.

Last week 123 ministers published a letter that said South Africa's racial apartheid laws ''cannot be defended scripturally.'' The ministers -- whose ranks included a few high church officials -- called for abolishing some apartheid laws and said all races in South Africa should have a say in how the nation is to be governed.

Afrikaans commentators saw the letter as a carefully timed attempt to provoke a confrontation between church liberals and conservatives before a general synod scheduled for October. They also see it as an attempt to get Afrikanerdom's biggest church to throw its moral weight behind Prime Minister P. W. Botha's moves toward a form of political ''reconciliation'' with Coloreds (people of mixed race) and Asians.

Because the Dutch Reformed Church has close ties with the ruling National Party -- almost all government officials are members, as are 70 percent of the Afrikaans-speaking population -- it wields considerable political influence.

In fact, so closely are the National Party and the church connected that the church is often referred to as the ''spiritual arm'' of the National Party -- or , sarcastically, as the ''National Party at prayer.''

Indeed, the church introduced a form of apartheid more than 100 years ago, before the National Party was even formed, by founding a separate, segregated mission church for converts who were of racially mixed descent.

When the National Party came to power, the church petitioned for legislate against marriages between whites and blacks, claiming they were forbidden by the Scriptures.

For years the Dutch Reformed Chruch supported hard-line apartheid all the way. But it has been left behind in Prime Minister Botha's recent moves for reforms that would bring Coloreds and Asians into the political mainstream. This has encouraged more liberal church theologians to urge a review of the church's own attitudes to racial matters.

The ministers' letter objects to such laws as the Mixed Marriages Act (which bans racially mixed marriages) and the Group Areas Act (which puts each population group in its own separate residential group area).

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