Danger zones for an archbishop: George Carey's visit to Sudan risks increasing religious discord, says Andrew Brown

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THE LAST devout Anglican to make such a stir in Khartoum was General Gordon. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, appears to be as impervious to history as to irony. Asked by a reporter what he had brought to the miserable people of Southern Sudan, apart from the assurance that they were in his prayers, he replied: 'That they believe they are in my prayers is a significant achievement in themselves - they welcomed me - it was almost messianic at times - it was deeply humbling.'

Deeply humbling to be welcomed almost as a Messiah? One wonders what he thought he meant. The terrible inarticulacy which seizes him at the sight of a microphone has clearly not been dispelled by the horrors he saw in Sudan. And it does not help his cause.

As was apparent from his press conference in Nairobi yesterday, he was deeply shocked by what he had seen, but it is still not clear what he was doing in Southern Sudan in the first place. He seems to have felt he made a valuable contribution just by being seen there, rather like the Queen Mother visiting blitzed areas of London during the war. But the motives for Dr Carey's travels - this latest expedition included - escapes many observers. Since his translation to Canterbury three years ago, he has made an average of 10 foreign trips a year. Among Islamic countries, he has visited Turkey, Malaysia and Jordan; none of them countries in which the Anglican church plays as important a role as it does in Southern Sudan.

'The great hope about his visit was that it would raise the profile of the whole situation, and especially the plight of the civilian population in the south, which would give a chance of much greater communication between south and north,' said Diana Witts, Sudan Secretary of the Church Missionary Society and a frequent visitor to the country. However, the chances of improved relations with the North seem slim after the expulsion of the British ambassador, which Dr Carey described as 'over the top'.

Miss Witts points out that, during the war years, Southern Sudan has seen some of the fastest church growth in the Anglican Communion. In Akot, which Dr Carey visited, there were nine struggling congregations 10 years ago; now there are 300 village congregations, each of about 600 people: 'It is a deeply suffering church: isolated, both from the outside world and from the leadership in the North, they feel abandoned; they're not responsible for the fighting. They are just the people who suffer.'

Dr Carey has certainly drawn attention to the sufferings of all sides in Sudan, and Christians there have undoubtedly been severely repressed. Earlier visits by the archbishop to areas of Christian/Muslim warfare, such as Armenia, went almost entirely unnoticed. Not so this one, thanks to the acrimonious cancellation of his visit to Khartoum. Many observers with experience of Christian-Islamic relations felt his visit could stoke the belief, held by extremists on both sides, that the Crusades are today being refought in several wars on the frontiers of Islam.

Bosnia is an obvious case in point. The Muslim belief that the Bosnian war is in some sense a continuation of historic Western Christian hostility towards Islam is well documented. But this interpretation is shared by at least some of the Christians involved. At Medjugorje, the Roman Catholic pilgrimage centre near Mostar, Franciscan friars preach about the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Christian fleet defeated the Turks as a result, they say, of the Virgin's direct intervention. They urge prayers for a similar miracle today.

The war between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan is another front in these new crusades. Another might be Nigeria, where Dr Carey has cancelled a visit planned for later this month after fears were raised for his safety.

Evangelical Christians have made the war in Sudan a propaganda priority for some years now. Baroness Cox, the controversial educationist and missionary nurse ennobled by Baroness Thatcher, told an evangelical magazine last month that she had heard stories of Christian corpses crucified by the Muslim side, and could not rule out reports that some were being crucified alive. These stories have been vigorously circulated by the Jubilee Campaign, another Evangelical pressure group. But an experienced aid worker says, 'Crucifixion has never, never ever been authenticated, though there are plenty of atrocities on both sides.'

Peter Verney, another close British observer of the Sudan, says that the row surrounding the archbishop's visit has tended to make the situation on the ground worse. 'Any coverage which encourages the view of this war as a jihad on one side and a crusade on the other is deepening the problem. There has also been a tendency among Christian fundamentalists from outside the country to encourage some Southerners to speak in these terms when they might not have done so otherwise.'

Many observers of the war in the Sudan say the conflict is essentially racial, or tribal; and is being fought over land rather than for religious reasons, even though this war, like all wars, stimulates religious belief among many of its victims. The trouble is that the history of Islam and Christianity is rich in precedents for misunderstanding and hostility. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, head of the Church Missionary Society, himself a Christian from a Pakistani background, believes that Dr Carey's visit makes it even more essential to distinguish between Islam as an ideology, which may well be hostile to all sorts of Christian values, and Islam as it is lived, with which Christians have often been able to reach a fruitful accommodation.

'Historically there have been three different ways for Christians to deal with Islam,' he says. 'There is the Western crusading response; the response of Eastern Byzantine Christianity, which was to heap abuse on Islam; and there was the response of the large numbers of Christians who actually lived in the Muslim world and helped to create what we call Islamic civilisation. It is getting more and more important to find people like that, and fewer and fewer of them are about.'

No one will openly criticise Dr Carey for a visit which, whatever its problems, has highlighted some tremendous suffering. But there is a great deal of unspoken regret that he cancelled his visit to the North. In some circles it is suggested that Peter Streams, the ambassador expelled with evident relish by the Sudanese government, was not the best man to handle the delicate final negotiations between the archbishop and the government over how his visit should be conducted in the North. The established status of the Church of England may also be a complicating factor.

In the case of the Sudan visit, it seems clear that any rise in Dr Carey's standing here at home as a man who stood up to a Muslim government will be matched by a corresponding hardening of North Sudanese attitudes. When he returned to Nairobi, Dr Carey visited the estranged leaders of the two factions of the SPLA, the guerrilla army which controls the South, and urged them to make peace with each other.

After the meeting, John Garang, leader of the main faction, said: 'It has been a moral uplift for our people, but it is also a double-edged sword. It can also enable the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum to mobilise fundamentalist resources.'

Dr Carey denied in Nairobi that the South was fighting a religious war, though he left open the possibility that the North was. It would be unfortunate if his visit helped to make the South's war for independence into a crusade.

(Photographs omitted)