In a shocking statement Tuesday, American evangelist and relief organization head Franklin Graham said he prefers the Sudanese president – who is facing an international arrest for crimes against humanity – to remain in power.
Despite his egregious and inexcusable involvement in the Darfur genocide and attacks on Southern Sudanese, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has displayed some willingness to cooperate and work towards peace, Graham argues in his opinion piece posted in the New York Times on Tuesday.
During their three face-to-face meetings, Graham recalled he had confronted Bashir about attacks on Sudanese civilians and humanitarian relief agencies. The Sudanese president "has demonstrated that he is able to cooperate," Graham writes, noting that "on several occasions he has complied with my requests."
In 2001, Graham recalls, a hospital operated by his relief organization Samaritan's Purse in southern Sudan was bombed nine times by Bashir's forces. After Graham confronted Bashir about the hospital bombings during their first meeting in 2003, the attacks subsequently stopped.
"Mr. Bashir is rightly accused of great cruelty and destruction," Graham writes. "But I have been able to deal with him."
The op-ed was posted just one day before the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Bashir for the violence in Darfur. Bashir is charged with seven counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, and rape, according to CNN.
Violence broke out in the western region of Darfur, Sudan five years ago when ethnically African Darfurians rebelled against the central Arab-dominated Khartoum government. The government, in turn, is accused of unleashing Arab nomads called janjaweed militias on Darfur civilians, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths and the displacement of 2.5 million civilians since 2003.
News of the arrest warrant for Bashir have been met with cheers from human rights groups that have long sought for greater international intervention regarding the Darfur genocide.
Save Darfur Coalition president Jerry Fowler commended the ICC for issuing the arrest warrant and called the act a "game changing moment."
"It will now be much harder for Sudan's allies in the U.N. Security Council, as well as other leaders of Sudan's National Congress Party, to stand arm in arm with a wanted war criminal," Fowler said in a statement on Wednesday.
Fowler urged the Obama administration to quickly appoint a full-time U.S. envoy for peace in Sudan in the wake of the arrest warrant to help facilitate the peace process.
But Graham, in contrast, believes the arrest "will likely only create further chaos" rather than peace in the country.
Bashir's arrest will likely "undo the progress" of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by Sudan's central government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement that ended the civil war, he argues.
"Mr. Bashir, who fought members of his own party to approve the deal, is critical to the peace process," the relief agency head says.
The arrest could also threaten South Sudan's elections later this year, as well as the referendum on southern independence scheduled for 2011, Graham warns, "and hurl the country back into civil war."
Furthermore, "his (Bashir's) removal could also spur retaliation by Bashir loyalists and other forces against civilians, United Nations peacekeepers or international aid workers."
"I want to see justice served, but my desire for peace in Sudan is stronger," Graham writes. "Mr. Bashir, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, is hardly an ideal peacemaker. But given all the warring factions in Sudan, there is no guarantee that his replacement would be better."
Instead, Graham proposes the U.N. Security Council postpone the court proceedings for 12 months to allow Sudan enough time to establish peace. Bashir during this time should do everything in his power to fulfill the agreements with southern Sudan, and cooperate with the United Nations and the United States to bring stability to Darfur.
Like the Save Darfur Coalition, Graham urges the Obama administration to quickly appoint a special envoy to Sudan.
"The removal of Mr. Bashir will make it harder to negotiate an end to the crisis in Sudan," Graham contends. "Ultimately, justice will be served by a power higher than the International Criminal Court. In the meantime, justice without peace would be a hollow victory."
Graham is currently in Sudan visiting humanitarian projects run by Samaritan's Purse and meeting with high-level government officials both in North and South Sudan.
Samaritan's Purse has worked in Sudan since 1993, helping hundreds of thousands of people survive regional conflicts. Some of the projects the relief group supports in Sudan include four hospitals, schools and agricultural programs and food distribution projects to displaced people in Darfur. It also supports a project to rebuild the 500 churches that were destroyed in the South during the civil war.