JOHANNESBURG, FEB. 29 -- Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other top religious leaders were arrested and forcibly taken into custody in police vans today after attempting to march to Parliament with a petition protesting last week's government clampdown on antiapartheid organizations.

The church leaders were detained briefly at a police headquarters and then released after they were told that formal charges against them for contravention of emergency regulations were being considered.

The arrests underscored the potential for a growing confrontation between church and state as some religious leaders view themselves as the last legal avenue for nonviolent dissent against the government's policies of racial separation and continued white-minority rule.

Besides Tutu, the 1984 Nobel peace laureate, the approximately 25 church leaders arrested included Roman Catholic Archbishop Stephen Naidoo; the Rev. Allan Boesak, head of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; the Rev. Frank Chikane, general secretary of the Council of Churches, and the Rev. Khoza Mjojo, president of the Methodist Church in South Africa.

Later, about 100 churchmen and supporters who staged a sitdown in a street near Parliament in Cape Town to protest the arrests were sprayed by a police water cannon and then loaded into police vehicles as they recited the Lord's Prayer.

A number of clergymen and liberal members of Parliament demanded to know why the arrests were made today, since hundreds of extreme right-wing demonstrators, some of them armed, were allowed to march to government buildings in Pretoria on Saturday to deliver a petition for President Pieter W. Botha.

The neofascist members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, or Afrikaner Resistance Movement, carrying swastika-like flags, were allowed to drive to the president's office and deliver to a senior police officer a petition demanding the return of "traditional Boer land" to Afrikaners.

Today's arrests came as the South African Council of Churches and other religious bodies sought to fill the protest vacuum created Wednesday with the effective banning of 17 leading antiapartheid groups, including the United Democratic Front (UDF), and the placing of severe restrictions on the country's largest labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Botha, invoking emergency powers, on Wednesday gave the minister of law and order, Adriaan Vlok, the authority to prohibit "any activities or acts whatsoever" by any organization he named.

After his release, Tutu told a news conference that the arrested clerics represent 12 million South African Christians and could not be dismissed by the government as "the usual bunch of rabble-rousers."

The Rev. Peter Storey, former president of the South African Council of Churches, 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."

The arrests came shortly after Tutu and Boesak, addressing a protest service in St. George's Cathedral in downtown Cape Town, vowed to intensify church opposition to the government even if it meant imprisonment.

Yesterday, in another religious service, Boesak said the church would take a more active role following the virtual banning of the antiapartheid groups and the placing of severe restrictions on 18 black nationalist leaders, including the copresidents of the UDF, Archie Gumede and Albertina Sisulu.

"Let us no longer pussyfoot around this issue. This is an illegitimate government that deserves no authority and does not have it, . . . that deserves no obedience and must not get it. The church must show the other way," Boesak declared.

Last July, the South African Council of Churches adopted a controversial report recognizing the use of force by liberation movements "as a means to end oppression."

The Southern Africa diocese of the Anglican Church also endorsed the report, known as the Lusaka Declaration, but later qualified its stand by saying it supported nonviolence to effect political change.

Witnesses to today's arrests said that when the first group of church leaders and their supporters, marching with arms linked, were barred by police from entering Parliament Street, which is around the corner from the Anglican cathedral, they knelt on the pavement and began singing hymns. After warning the group that it could not demonstrate in the vicinity of Parliament, policemen forced the protesters into vehicles and took them to a nearby police station.

{In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said U.S. diplomats attended the service at St. George's and "witnessed the police repression of the peaceful demonstration outside the cathedral." The U.S. government "strongly condemns" the arrests, she said.}

The second group, led by the Rev. Sydney Luckett, director of the Anglican Board of Social Responsibility, later marched to a line of police vehicles parked near the cathedral and demanded to see their leaders.

After the protesters sat down in the street, they were sprayed with a water cannon and loaded into police vehicles.

A police spokesman in Pretoria said the authorities had "displayed all possible reasonableness, warning those taking part in the procession that their actions were illegal and requesting them to disperse."

The arrests occurred two days before important parliamentary by-elections. In the campaign, the far-right Conservative Party has accused Botha's National Party of waivering from strict adherence to apartheid and it is expected to win the two by-elections.

The Los Angeles Times added from Johannesburg:

In its biggest effort yet to improve living standards of blacks, the South African government announced plans Monday for more than $550 million in new housing, schools and other community facilities in strife-torn Natal province.