U.S. Evangelist, a Critic of Islam, Reaches Out to Sudan's President

Khartoum, Sudan - The first time that Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Muslim president of Sudan, met Franklin Graham, the prominent evangelical Christian, the conversation came to a kind of standoff.

Graham, who has called Islam an "evil and wicked" religion, told Bashir in the 2003 meeting that he wanted to persuade him to become a Christian. Bashir, at the time fighting a civil war in the southern region of the country, told Graham that he wanted to make him a Muslim, Graham recalled.

In a meeting between the two men here Monday night, the semi-serious proselytizing continued.

This time, though, Graham said he came away thinking that Bashir, who now stands accused of presiding over the killing of at least 200,000 people in the Darfur region in the country's west, deserves credit for signing the peace agreement with rebels in the south in 2005.

Although human rights activists and some U.S. officials are counseling tougher measures against Bashir's government to end the violence in Darfur -- and to more fully implement a faltering peace agreement with the south -- Graham said that a softer approach is needed.

"I'm not a politician, but I think our government does need to recognize some steps he's taken and reward this government in some way to show them we appreciate what they have done" regarding southern Sudan, said Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham and head of the international Christian relief group Samaritan's Purse. "I think we can do more when we're engaged."

Evangelical groups have for years rallied around the cause of southern Sudan, where a 20-year civil war was waged largely over oil fields along a disputed border between north and south. The conflict also had religious and ethnic dimensions; the government is made up mostly of Arabs and Muslims, while southerners are black Africans, around 30 percent of whom practice Christianity, with most of the rest practicing indigenous religions.

Graham, who has been criticized by other U.S. evangelical leaders for his comments about Islam, was in the region touring his group's projects in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. He was accompanied by former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Earlier in the day, the group flew two hours southwest for a brief visit to Otash, a sprawling camp for some of the 2.5 million people displaced by the fighting in Darfur, the scene of what the United States has described as genocide. At the airport in the town of Nyala, about 550 miles from Khartoum, three government attack helicopters and three Soviet-made fighter jets were parked on the tarmac.

Aid workers said that 5,000 people had made their way to the camp, just outside Nyala, in the last week alone. Although some people on Tuesday were receiving their initial allotment of bamboo sticks and tarps for shelter, others have been at the camp for more than two years, and by now many have built mud-brick homes and even surrounded them with straw fencing.

One elderly man had tears in his eyes as he told Graham that he had been at the camp for nine months. "This land in Darfur is our right," he said. "If it belongs to the Arabs, then let us die, all."

Later in the evening, Graham met with Bashir, who had refused to see Frist, presumably because of his criticism of the Sudanese government.

Graham, for his part, was warmly welcomed, even though he told the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper in October that Islam is a religion that seeks to "persecute" others until they convert, with the ultimate goal of "total domination."

Asked Tuesday after the meeting whether his views of Islam had changed, Graham said "no."

In the meeting, Graham said, he urged the president to work toward a resolution in Darfur, but focused mostly on issues of religious freedom across the country.

While the south is a semiautonomous secular state, the north is governed according to Islamic law. Christian groups there complain that they are blocked from building churches and are not allowed to buy television airtime for religious programming, among other problems.

Graham said Bashir pledged to allow groups to build their churches and to look into Graham's other requests, including one for $15 million to help rebuild at least 600 churches in the south destroyed during the war.

Although Samaritan's Purse is a humanitarian organization that receives U.S. government funding and is not allowed by law to engage in religious activity, Graham was unapologetic about the ultimate goal of his work.

"I would like to convert every person I meet," he said. "I don't want to force them. It's through persuasion."