In a dramatic departure from traditional Afrikaner unity, 123 white ministers declared that the nation's official racial segregation policy "cannot be defended scripturally" and called for racial equality.

Their letter in a weekly religious journal caused a furor within the Dutch Reformed Church, a major force in the life of the Dutch-descended Afrikaners who dominate the ruling National Party.

The signers, including a member of the church's executive committee and other influential ministers, said a social order built on race separation, or apartheid, "is unacceptable." They said it alienates the nation's 4.3 million whites, 21 million blacks, 2.4 million mixed-race people and 850,000 Asians.

The letter called for scrapping several of the basic laws of apartheid, including the ban on marriages between people of different races and the Group Areas Act, which requires the races to live apart.

"The laws which have become symbols of this alienation, among these being those concerning mixed marriages, race classification and group areas, cannot be defended scripturally," the document said.

Laws forcing relocation of blacks and allowing them to be paid lower wages and given inadequate housing and education "cannot be reconciled with biblical demands for justice and human dignity.