Carey's mission feeds fears of Sudan extremists: Richard Dowden reports on suspicion in Khartoum that UK orchestrated archbishop's visit

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The Independent Online
AS John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, said, the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to southern Sudan could be used by Khartoum to 'enable the regime . . . to mobilise fundamentalist resources', perhaps to prosecute the war against the south.

Dr George Carey's visit has achieved one of its aims: it drew attention to Sudan, but possibly perhaps not in quite the way he intended. It will be ironic if his visit, far from bringing peace, has resulted only in an expulsion of ambassadors by Britain and Sudan and fed Khartoum hardliners' suspicions that Church and politicians in Britain are behind the rebellion in the south. Yesterday Christian Aid said the row was 'diverting attention from an increasingly desperate humanitarian crisis in Sudan'.

Sudan is blaming the personality and style of Peter Streams, the British ambassador to Khartoum, for the breakdown in relations. Britain has been in the forefront of criticism of Sudan's human rights record but it must represent a failure of British diplomacy when the breakdown comes over the issue of where the Archbishop slept during his visit. He insisted on staying with the British ambassador; the Sudanese wanted him to stay with the Episcopal Church but Lambeth Palace said it had nowhere suitable for him to stay. This apparently meant he needed 24-hour international telecommunications. Khartoum offered to provide these wherever he stayed and also said that in the south he would be out of contact with any sort of telephone for several days.

There still seemed to be room for compromise, but Dr Carey called off the visit. That announcement and the subsequent Foreign Office statement referred to the close consultation between the Foreign Office and the Archbishop, feeding fears in Khartoum that the visit was politically orchestrated by London.

The Pope, British MPs and a World Council of Churches delegation all visited Khartoum last year and all have had to fight off the government's attempts to hijack their visits. Nevertheless, by tact and firmness, all achieved most of what they wanted, and made their criticism and their position clear.

Another irony is that, although Dr Carey chose to highlight the sufferings of southern 'Christian' Sudan at the hands of the northern Muslims, most of those he saw were victims of the war between the two wings of the SPLA, not Christians persecuted by Muslims. The rebel movement split in 1991, and the war between the two factions has recently created more havoc and starvation than the northern army.

Having lost any opportunity of promoting north-south peace, Dr Carey did have a role in trying to prevent the split in the SPLA from spreading. He only visited areas under the control of Dr Garang's wing of the SPLA but did meet both faction leaders in Nairobi. It is unclear what effect his talks have had. His comment was: 'I don't think they are doing enough to forward the cause of peace in the SPLA.'

What his visit has done is to strengthen the perception, already formed by journalistic shorthand, that the north is Islamic and the south is Christian. First, many Muslims are offended by the term Islamic to describe the Khartoum regime, and feel their religion has been hijacked by extremists. Secondly, there are no figures on the religious affiliation of southern Sudanese but it would be wrong to imagine the southern Sudanese as staunch Anglicans. There is a mix of religions, and animism - the worship of God or gods in nature - probably has the biggest following. Christianity is the largest formal religion but many southerners are Muslims, which does not prevent them prosecuting the war against the north.