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Tracking the Dutch Reformed Church's phased renunciation of apartheid is a tortuous process in decoding semantics. Unlike other Christian churches in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church has refused to declare apartheid a heresy.

It makes a distinction between racism and apartheid: Racism, it says, is a sin. But ``Church and Society,'' the church's 1986 treatise scripted by church leader Johan Heyns, says of apartheid:

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``The conviction has gradually grown that a forced separation and division of peoples cannot be considered a biblical imperative. The attempt to justify such an injunction as derived from the Bible must be recognized as an error and rejected.''

At a meeting of the white Dutch Reformed Church and its black and mixed-race counterparts last March, Mr. Heyns is reported to have wept in confessing the error of apartheid.

But his delegation declined to endorse a statement by the black church leaders condemning ``apartheid in all its forms a sin and irreconcilable with the Gospel.''

In a unilateral statement, drafted by Heyns, the white delegation said: ``We confess with humiliation and sorrow the participation of our church in the introduction and legitimation of the ideology of apartheid and the subsequent suffering of people.''

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