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South African church stands firm for racial separation

The most influential church in South Africa has effectively reaffirmed its support of the government's policy of apartheid.

Two weeks of debate at the Dutch Reformed (Nederduitse Gereformeerde or NG) Church's quadrennial synod amounted to an endorsement of the status quo in South Africa.

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This outcome is likely to bring more black-white polarization to the NG ''family'' of churches, which itself is virtually isolated from the international religious community. And the synod appears to have sent a comforting signal to the nation's capital that the church will continue to assure its huge Afrikaner following that government race policy is endorsed by the teachings of the Bible.

The synod, which ended last week, was considered by many here as the most important in the history of the NG Church. Before the meeting, dissent had been building from whites in the church and in ''nonwhite'' sister NG churches over the church's historical support and central role in the development of apartheid. Debates within the church have always had political overtones, given that 65 percent of the ruling Afrikaner community, including most government leaders, belongs to the NG Church.

The church has been under intense pressure internationally. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), one of the world's largest ecumenical church groups and one of the last to have relations with the NG Church, suspended the South African church from membership in August, declaring apartheid was heresy.

The NG Church's response to these pressures was defiant.

At the international level, the church turned the WARC's ultimatum (that it denounce apartheid before regaining membership) on its head. The NG Church has given the WARC four years to reconsider its position on apartheid and NG Church's supension.

It is unlikely that the WARC will change its views, however, and the NG Church has probably forced the termination of any future relations between that group and the influential South African church.

The NG Church's own biblical justification for apartheid, spelled out in a 1978 synod report, also came under fire this year. The synod put off that hot potato - deciding to review a report on the subject in 1986. Critics wanted it taken up immediately.

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''We're not sure in South Africa that we have four years left in which to seek peaceful solutions to our race problems,'' said South African Alan Boesak, new president of the WARC and a chief critic of the NG Church.

Dr. Boesak, a Colored (person of mixed race descent), was also instrumental in getting the NG Church for Coloreds to declare recently that apartheid is heresy. That move reflected growing dissent among ''nonwhite'' members of NG sister churches with the segregated NG Church structure. (There are four churches in the NG family - those for whites, Coloreds, Indians, and blacks.)

However, the church synod rebuffed pressures toward a more ''open'' policy. A motion declaring there is no biblical justification for South Africa's mixed marriages act and immorality act, which outlaw relations across the color line, was overwhelmingly defeated. A drive to approve of mixed church services as a matter of policy was also rejected, leaving the decision to local church councils. The result is preservation of the status quo, where few churches have ''open'' services.

Thus the NG Church appears to have enforced a political alignment with the traditional hard-line racial policies of the ruling National Party. However, the majority of the church seems reluctant to follow even modest adaptations of racial policy pursued by Prime Minister P.W. Botha. Political analysts say this has traditionally been the case.

Assessing the synod, Dr. Nico Smith, a white NG minister now serving a black congregation said: ''The whole concept of separateness is still very strong in the minds of the church elders and members.''

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