Shell Oil Co. has mounted a secret campaign code-named "The Neptune Strategy" to neutralize a consumer boycott and criticism by religious and civil rights groups of Shell's operations in racially segregated South Africa.

The 265-page plan focuses much of its attention on the nation's mainstream religious community in an effort to "deflect their attention away from boycott and disinvestment efforts" and shift public debate from the volatile issue of apartheid.

Instead, according to the plan, Shell, which, through its parent, the Royal Dutch Shell group, has announced its intention to stay in South Africa, should seek to promote discussions of "post-apartheid reality" rather than the current racially separatist policies of South Africa that have led large numbers of firms to withdraw.

The campaign, devised by the Washington-based consulting firm Pagan International, is directed at church and civil rights groups, unions and academics in an effort to undermine support for critics of Shell's presence in South Africa.

A copy of the plan was obtained by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a Shell critic, and made available to United Press International.

Shell Oil Co. is the target of a campaign, including a union-led consumer boycott, divestment pressure and a broad-based stockholder drive to force the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell group, to call an extraordinary meeting of stockholders to discuss its operations in South Africa.

Although Shell Oil Co. has "no operations or interest" in South Africa, according to a company spokesman, its parent has a South African subsidiary, Shell South Africa. Shell South Africa says it opposes apartheid, but critics in the United States and Europe maintain that a number of its practices -- including sales to the police and military -- help prop up the apartheid system.

Shell spokesman Norman Altstedder confirmed the plan existed but denied it was secret, saying it simply contained "a large number of ideas for dealing with the boycott."

"Shell hired Pagan," he said, "but found it necessary to proceed with only a limited number of activities." Altstedder said Shell was primarily interested in opening lines of communications with its critics.

But Tim Smith, executive director of the Interfaith Center, a coalition of 234 Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic religious orders, called the effort "part of a calculated plan to rechannel energy from the boycott."

"Shell's goal was to obscure the ways in which Shell concretely supports white minority rule and apartheid by diverting the debate to 'post-apartheid South Africa.' "

Pagan International is directed by Rafael Pagan, an employe of Nestle Corp. at the time that firm faced a widespread church-based consumer boycott over its marketing of infant formula in the Third World. After helping to negotiate an end of the boycott, Pagan began his own consulting firm, specializing in corporate responsibility issues.

Although the plan also included strategies aimed at civil rights groups, unions and academics, it focused on church opponents.

"The churches represent the 'critical mass' of opposition," it said. "If they join the boycott and pressure for disinvestment, it will become a radically different and far more costly problem than it is."