Leaders of churches representing tens of millions of South Africans on Tuesday accused the governing African National Congress of trying to co-opt and manipulate them, in a strongly worded statement reflecting two years of brewing tensions.
"Motshekga, back off from the church!" was the warning sent in a joint statement to Mathole Motshekga, parliamentary chief whip of the ANC and the head of the party's cultural and religious affairs desk.
Motshekga shrugged it off as "a storm in a teacup."
The one-time allies in the fight to end racist white rule in South Africa have drawn apart as church leaders have increasingly criticized corruption in the government and the ANC and their apparent inability to address failures in the national education and health systems. They have criticized growing inequality that has the poorest people worse off financially than they were under apartheid while a small black elite led by party officials gets fabulously wealthy.
The statement from leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Evangelical, Salvation Army, Baptist and traditional African churches accused Motshekga of sending four subordinates to "infiltrate" their closed meeting of the National Church Leaders' Consultation.
They said it was part of Motshekga's efforts "to muscle in on and manipulate church leadership structures."
"We are leaders in our own right and lead by Biblical mandate," the statement warned.
Motshekga, who is in Switzerland on parliament business, had his office put out a statement saying there was "an innocent mistake" and that his political adviser walked into the wrong meeting at a Johannesburg hotel.
"Dr. Motshekga respects the autonomy and the role of the church in the society and will never meddle in its affairs," the statement said.
But Roman Catholic Cardinal Wildrid Napier told The Associated Press that at least three officers from Motshekga's office slipped into the meeting and were rifling through papers before they were discovered.
"This is direct interference by a political party in the affairs of the church," he said.
It was a far cry from the days when South Africa's apartheid government called the South African National Council of Churches "the African National Congress at prayer."
The rift began in 2008, when the Council of Churches tried to mediate between then President Thabo Mbeki and current President Jacob Zuma, who helped oust Mbeki by forcing him to resign as ANC leader in 2008.
The ANC under Zuma accused the council of favoring Mbeki. The following year, Zuma supporter Pastor Ray McCauley of the Rhema Church led the formation of the National Interfaith Leaders' Council of about two dozen leaders of Christian churches and the Muslim community. It was seen as a competitor to the Council of Churches. And McCauley drew more criticism when he hosted Zuma at his church during the 2009 election campaign and denied other parties that opportunity.
Napier said Tuesday, "I think they are assuming that because we opposed apartheid together that we accept everything that the ANC stands for today, and I must say that in its present manifestation, the ANC is a very different animal from the one we worked for in the struggle and also in the transition."
The church leaders' criticism was part of a growing disenchantment in the country with the party under the leadership of Zuma, a polygamist with three wives, mistresses and at least 20 children.