CAPE TOWN, South Africa--Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other religious leader from all races were arrested yesterday while kneeling near Parliament with a petition against government bans on anti-apartheid groups.
Members of the procession, led by Tutu and his colleagues, recited the Lord's Prayer as police sprayed them with jets of water and loaded them into vans.
All the detainees were freed in a few hours and the clergymen said they would continue protests regardless of the consequences. Their petition referred to an order last Wednesday prohiting political activity by 18 major anti-apartheid organizations.
Riot police blocked Tutu and two dozen other religious leaders, wearing robes and holding Bibles, as they tried to march toward Parliament from nearby St. George's Cathedral, the main Anglican church in central Cape Town.
They knelt and linked arms as a policeman called through a bullhorn that the gathering was illegal. Officers escorted the protesters into vans as others aimed jets from water cannons at scores of protesters who remained on the sidewalk praying and singing an African hymn.
After being told at a police station that charges might be filed later, the white, Black, mixed-race and Indian clergymen were freed. They held a news conference at St. George's, which was surrounded by policemen.
"We are not defying the law," said Tutu, the Black foe of apartheid who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. "We are obeying God. We also obey God every day."
"In the past, it was possible for people to say it was the usual rabble rousers demonstrating. They can't say it any more. It's the church."
The Rev. Allan Boesak, the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, said the white authorities would view the protest as "an act of subversion."
"We told the South African government that we had decided we would be obedient to God," he said. "That is a higher law to us."
In the petition addressed to President P.W. Botha and Parliament, the churchmen said in part: "No matter the consequences, we will explore every possible avenue for continuing the activities which you have prohibited other bodies from taking."
The Rev. Khoza Mgojo, head of the Methodist Church, said the petition would be mailed to Botha. The document was drenched during the confrontation.
State Department Spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said in Washington the United States condemns "the forceful repression of peaceful demonstrators. By criminalizing and suppressing the exercise of basic political and human rights, the South African government is shutting off avenues for nonviolent change." Two American diplomats attended a service Tutu conducted at St. George's before the march, the U.S. Embassy said.
At the service, Tutu and other ministers said churches would continue the work of the banned organizations against apartheid, which by law and custom establishes a racially segregated society in which South Africa's 26 million Blacks have no vote in national affairs. The 5 million whites control the economy and maintain separate districts, schools and health services.
Tutu led the procession along with Boesak, Mgojo, Roman Catholic Archbishop Stephen Naidoo and the Rev. Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
When the marchers had gone only about 20 yards, they encountered 50 policemen with arms linked to form a human barrier.
The police declared the march illegal and took the leaders away, starting with Boesak.
An Anglican priest, the Rev. Sid Luckett, led the rest of the crowd to the police vehicles and they sat on the sidewalk.
Police sprayed the seated protesters with water cannon but they stayed in place and recited The Lord's Prayer as they were put into police vehicles. Journalists also were detained.