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Black churches at cutting edge of South Africa's conflict

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the titular head of South Africa's Anglican Church, invited journalists to look at the ``complexions'' of the bishops gathered around him and to ponder the implications. Half of the 18 bishops were black. So, too, is Archbishop Tutu, Nobel laureate and the first black to be elected archbishop of Cape Town.

``Even our complexion in the house of bishops indicates that the sky is not going to fall down when a black person is in the leadership,'' Tutu said, at the clergymen's meeting in Cape Town earlier this month. ``If it can happen in the church, it surely must give hope that the same thing can happen in the secular state.''

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His remarks highlighted an important facet of the prevailing conflict between prominent church leaders and the state: The clergymen at the sharp edge of the conflict lead churches with a preponderence of black members.

There is, however, another, significant, contingent of clergymen who have not criticized the government for recent restrictions on 18 opposition organizations and the suspension of a Catholic Church publication. Some have even been generally supportive, notably the largest Dutch Reformed Church, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK). An exclusively white church, the NGK has a membership of 1.6 million, about 38 percent of South Africa's white population.

According to an NGK official, Prof. Johan Heyns, over 80 percent of Cabinet ministers and about 70 percent of the government's white supporters are NGK members. Its ties with the ruling National Party are so close that the NGK has been dubbed the ``National Party at prayer.''

Two ``sister'' churches of the NGK, however, belong to the predominantly black South African Council of Churches, a critic of government policies. They are: the NGK in Afrika, with 1.35 million members, established as a segregated church for blacks; and the smaller NG Sending Kerk, founded for ``colored'' (mixed race) people. Sending Kerk moderator, Dr. Allan Boesak, is a high-profile anti-apartheid activist.

And the leaders of most of the other established churches - Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, all more than 70 percent black - have been at the forefront of protest.

Ties of sympathy between black clergymen and restricted, predominantly black opposition groups are symbolized by Tutu and Dr. Boesak. They are patrons of the United Democratic Front, which spearheaded extra-parliamentary opposition for more than four years.

Occupying a generally neutral but potentially decisive position in the politico-religious conflict are the African independent churches. With the allegiance of more than 4.2 million blacks, they constitute the largest single group of Christians.

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In 1985, President Pieter Botha spoke to the Zion Christian Church, one the largest independent churches. He won tumultuous applause from the crowd. The leader assured him of the church's political obedience to the state. But since then, a significant shift may have taken place: Independent church leaders were among those who signed a statement protesting the latest restrictions on black groups.

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