JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Police arrested Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other religious leaders Monday as they defiantly marched on Parliament to protest the government's new ban on anti-apartheid activities.
As officers bundled the protesters into police vehicles, riot-squad police fired a water cannon at hundreds of other priests and followers who knelt on the street and prayed.
Those arrested were later released after being told the government would investigate the marchers and might file criminal charges.
'What we did today was not the negative thing of saying we disobey, it was the positive thing of saying we are obeying God,' said Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, at a news conference after his release.
Besides Tutu, the Rev. Allan Boesak, head of the Geneva-based World Council of Reformed Churches, Roman Catholic Archbishop Stephen Naidoo, and up to 80 other clerics, supporters and reporters were arrested in the march on Parliament in Cape Town to deliver a petition to President Pieter Botha and other lawmakers denouncing the crackdown.
The government measure, announced last Wednesday, stifles the political activities of the 2-million member United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions with 650,000 members and 16 smaller black rights organizations that want to reverse South Africa's racial discrimination laws.
'You can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream,' said Naidoo, who along with the other church leaders represents 12 million Christians in South Africa. 'The dream is freedom, and that dream is alive and no amount of force is going to change that.'
Tutu said with the Christian community supporting the protesters, the government can no longer say only 'rabble-rousers' are participating in anti-government activities.
The clerics marched from St. George's Anglican Church to the nearby Parliament buildings to deliver the petition but were stopped short by police.
'We believe that the government in its actions over recent years, but especially by last week's action, has chosen a path for the future which will lead to violence, bloodshed and instability,' the petition said.
'Your actions indicate to us that those of you in government have decided that only violence will keep you in power, that you have chosen the military option for our country.'
The petition, which was signed again after being soaked in the water-cannon deluge, will be mailed to Botha, church officials said.
Witnesses said a line of blue-clad riot police waded into the protest march some 200 yards from the St. George's after a loudspeaker warning from a police commander to disperse.
Foreign diplomats and bystanders were caught up in the melee and drenched by the water cannon.
'They bundled Archbishop Tutu and most of the leading churchmen into police vehicles and turned a water cannon on others,' an eyewitness said.
Police defended the action, calling the protest 'an illegal procession.'
'The police displayed all possible reasonableness, warning those taking part in the procession that their actions were illegal and requesting them to disperse,' a police spokesman said.
'Notwithstanding this warning, the procession took place and after being requested to disperse, the group ignored the call and sat down in the road from where the police were forced to remove them.'
The arrests sparked swift condemnation from the United States and Europe.
State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said 'The United States government strongly condemns the South African government's forceful repression of peaceful demonstration.'
'By criminalizing and supressing the exercise of basic political and human rights, the South African government is shutting off avenues for non-violent change in South Africa,' Oakley said.
A joint statement by Lorenzo Natali, vice-president of the Brussels-based European Community's executive commission, and Willy De Clercq, commissioner for external relations, said the arrests can be explained only by 'a perverse logic of a government which thinks it can reply to the legitimate aspirations of the oppressed majority by violence and systematic violation of human rights.'
The Rev. Peter Storey, past president of the South African Council of Churches, told the news conference the government believes it can wipe out opposition with the new decree.
'This is just another one of its great blunders,' he said. 'The task of the church is to demonstrate that one cannot destroy the deep hunger for liberty, neither can you put the whole church in jail.'