The Muslim-Christian rivalry woven into Sudan's long civil war is an intractable problem that makes geopolitical thinkers throw up their hands.
For Douglas Johnston, a conflict-resolution advocate, religion may be an avenue to end the long-standing conflict when all else has failed.
Muslims and Christian have some common ground no matter how bitterly they differ, said Mr. Johnston, who recently visited Khartoum to meet officials of Sudan's Foreign Ministry.
"One of the touchstones was talking about Jesus," he said of that session. "The foreign minister had formerly been head of the inter-religious council, a group of Christian and Muslim leaders who meet regularly."
In the world of geopolitics, the fact that Jesus said "blessed are the peacemakers," or that Jesus is praised frequently in the Koran, would be considered by many policy-makers and diplomats as a very small building block indeed.
Yet the private initiative by Mr. Johnston illustrates what others consider an increasingly credible approach to global peacemaking. In July, he will step down as executive vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to start the new International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.
"He is one of a number of people who have tried [personal diplomacy] on the Sudan," said Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.
Mr. Mitchell said diplomacy by a nongovernmental organization, or NGO - also called "Track II" diplomacy - can be used in a conflict situation to work with grass-roots populations, with political leaders, or through religious groups.
But, he added, it is almost always long-term work.
"People will ask, `How many conflicts did you solve last week?' " said Mr. Mitchell, a 30-year veteran of such efforts. "It's much slower and more complicated than you might think."
TRACK II DIPLOMACY
Mr. Johnston said he went to Sudan to explore whether "recent conciliatory gestures" by the government, and the aftermath of the U.S. cruise-missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant, might allow for talks with the Sudanese leaders.
Nobody knows if the Track II approach can work in Sudan. But there is abundant evidence, people in the field said, that this kind of diplomacy has more history than people know about - and that the approach has become even more prominent in the past decade.
"People no longer think of us as simply naive do-gooders," said Mr. Mitchell of the George Mason institute. "They consider that you do have a place in the array of things, even in a vast, horrible situation like Sudan."
Joseph Montville, who heads the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, coined the term "Track II" in a 1980 Foreign Policy article.
He said that such work may be traced to President Eisenhower's use of magazine editor Norman Cousins to begin backstage talks with the Soviets at Dartmouth College in 1959.
Now, he said, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute - a State Department branch that educates its Foreign Service staff, has put into the curriculum study of the role of NGOs in official nation-state diplomacy. "It is a milestone in the change of world view," said Mr. Montville.
Track II diplomacy, he said, "Lays out the intellectual and moral basis for a settlement. But in reality, moral-intellectual settlement is not enough." Those kinds of plans must be passed on to governments or armies, who hopefully will be persuaded to enter negotiations.
Mr. Montville, formerly a career Foreign Service officer, said the product of Track II work also has gained a "growing recognition from the U.S. military." But in his experience, he added, it is easier to persuade a group of elites to consider a settlement than to sell it to the …