- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
Before hopping a plane to Sudan tonight, the Christian leader and son of iconic Evangelical Billy Graham talked to Foreign Policy about his work in the African nation, why the American Evangelical community is so passionate about it, and what he plans to tell President Omar al-Bashir when he meets with him.
Foreign Policy: How many trips have you made to Sudan?
Franklin Graham: I really don’t know. It’s been quite a few. We’ve been doing this for over 20 years, so it’s a number of trips.
FP: Why is it such a passion of yours?
Graham: During the war, the north — predominantly Muslim — was trying to annihilate the Christians in the south. I saw it as a racial war, but I also saw it as a religious war. I thought it was important to stand with my brothers and sisters in faith and do all I could to help them in their time of suffering.
FP: Critics say this is just a case of a conflict involving Christians vs. Muslims and that’s why you’re concerned. Is that fair?
Graham: No, it’s more than that, but no question that’s a part of it. The north declared Shariah law. And the Christians said we’re not going to raise our children and live under Islamic law and have Islam taught to our children in schools. We want to be free and have our own schools. They wanted a secular government. So, religion, no question was at the heart of this.
FP: It is one of the foreign policy issues that has really resonated with the Evangelical community. How come?
Graham: I don’t think it’s just Evangelicals. I think it was Christians in Europe and around the world that saw where Islam was trying to annihilate the Christians in the south. It was Arab against black, for the most part. But I try to make friends on both sides. Our hospital in Lui [in South Sudan] was bombed on seven separate occasions by the government in the north. I finally went to see President Bashir and I asked him personally if he would stop bombing our hospital. And he did. I since have had a number of meetings with him. And these meetings have always been productive. I found Bashir to be somebody you could speak with, could negotiate with. You know, he signed the comprehensive peace agreement. He’s a key player to the peace program. I find that you have to talk to both sides if you want to have peace.
FP: You plan on meeting with him again this trip. He’s a leader who has been indicted on war crimes by the International Criminal Court. What do you plan on saying to him?
Graham: History can remember him as a criminal or they can remember him as a man who tried to repair the damage that was done by maintaining peace. There’s fighting right now. Some of the churches we rebuilt have already been burned. He can uphold the peace agreement. He can be known as a man of peace in history. I don’t think it’s too late for Bashir. But time is running out.
FP: Despite everything he’s done? And despite the fact that the International Criminal Court has indicted him?
Graham: There’s a lot of criminals in that part of world, okay? They are not short on criminals. You have to work with these guys. He’s the man in power. And I’m afraid if something were to happen to him, you can get somebody in power who is more radical and more dangerous than President Bashir.
FP: What concerns do you have for the newly independent state of South Sudan? Is it ready to function on its own?
Graham: No, it’s going to have to have a lot of help. The United States, no question, has to get into that situation knee deep because if we just pull back, I don’t see how they make it. Europe has to be involved. The United Nations has to be involved. The border has to be protected. China has to get involved. They have the oil leases. They are going to have to invest in the south. It’s going to take a few years for this to function. Look how far they’ve come in such a short time, though.
FP: Sudan is one of those places where Evangelicals and liberals seem to come together. You’ve made a point of saying “Hollywood types” like George Clooney are heavily involved. Is there an alliance at all of liberals and Evangelicals on this issue?
Graham: I don’t think we’ve had a coalition necessarily. I think we’ve all been working independently, but working towards many of the same goals. Samaritan’s Purse [Graham’s charity organization] has worked in Darfur. Of course, Save Darfur has been very instrumental in raising concerns of the people of Darfur. As a result of raising the concerns for Darfur, it helps raise concerns for all of Sudan. And it shines a light on Sudan. So, I’m very grateful for George Clooney and what many of the Hollywood types have done. It’s been extremely valuable in keeping Sudan in the center of attention.