A BID by the Archbishop of Canterbury to consolidate links with 3 million Christians in southern Sudan has led to an angry diplomatic dispute between London and Khartoum.
George Carey, leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans, canceled a planned trip to heavily Muslim northern Sudan when Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the president, demanded that the government be allowed to organize his itinerary and arrange meetings with Christian groups.
But the archbishop changed his mind and informed the regime that he intended to visit mainly Christian, rebel-held southern Sudan, which the Khartoum government does not control. On Dec. 29 he flew there in a private plane via Kenya.
While Dr. Carey was airborne, General Bashir announced that Peter Streams, British ambassador in Khartoum, had two weeks to pack his bags and leave the country. The stated reason for the expulsion was Carey's desire to stay at the ambassador's residence rather than accept Sudanese government hospitality.
This produced a tough response from the British foreign office, which expelled Sudan's ambassador in London on Jan. 4.
Britain is the former colonial power in Sudan. While it does not have important economic ties with Khartoum, British politicians say the incident is unfortunate because they want to keep relations with Africa's largest country on an even keel.
Carey's advisers at Lambeth Palace, his London headquarters, concede that in planning a visit to Sudan, the archbishop was flying into a political and religious hornet's nest. Bashir seized power in a military coup in 1989. By then Sudan had been in the grips of its ongoing civil war for six years, with the Muslim north pitted against the Christian and animist south.
Since taking office, Bashir has pursued an Islamist line and lately has been applying sharia or Islamic law in non-Muslim areas. Last July, an Islamic court in the Sudanese capital ordered that Peter Elbersh, the Anglican Bishop of Khartoum, be given 80 lashes with a cane for alleged adultery - a charge strenuously denied by the bishop.
A month later, the United States placed Sudan on a blacklist of countries supporting terrorism. Anglican clergy in southern Sudan say they want the United Nations Security Council to examine Sudan's human rights record. The Bashir government denies attempting to impose Islam on Sudan's Christians.
Carey, his aides say, wanted to visit southern Sudan to bolster the region's Christians against what he sees as an attempt by Khartoum to persecute them. Many of the area's Christians are members of the Dinka tribe who have fled from northern areas, complaining of harassment.
A week before Carey was due to leave London, Lambeth Palace officials say, the archbishop was assured by the Khartoum regime that he would be able to move freely in northern Sudan. He wanted to avoid a repetition of what happened when Pope John Paul II visited Khartoum early last year, and Bashir tried to hijack the papal visit and extract maximum propaganda value from it.
Until Carey's travel arrangements began striking diplomatic sparks, British officials had argued that London could not interfere in what it saw as an internal Sudanese problem.
Now, however, relations between the two countries are at what a British government official describes as their lowest point for many years. They seem unlikely to be improved by what the archbishop has been saying during his trip. In a series of speeches in southern Sudan, the archbishop charged the regime with forcible religious conversion and called for the UN to intervene.