By Elizabeth Dias
February 12, 2015

The United Nations Security Council threatened new sanctions Thursday against Sudan’s government, and United States Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, accused the country of “obstruction, harassment and direct attacks that have impeded efforts to deliver humanitarian aid in Darfur.”

Last week on February 4, Sudan Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti sat down with TIME while he was in Washington as guest of the National Prayer Breakfast. In a tense, 40-minute exchange, Karti, a devout Muslim, spoke of everything from his love of Jesus to his categorical denial of mass rape, which Human Rights Watch and other have reported that Sudanese armed forces perpetrated in Darfur.

When TIME showed Karti photos on an iPhone of burned children and legless women, who reported their injuries came from Sudanese government forces, Karti insisted that the government targets only combatants. “Nothing of that is happening,” he said, averting his eyes from the images. “Nobody is targeting his own people.”

His presence at the Breakfast was controversial, especially as he is lobbying the U.S. to lift sanctions and remove Sudan from its list of states that sponsor terror. Senator Bob Casey Jr., a congressional co-chair of the Breakfast, objected to Karti’s invitation to a meeting the Fellowship had scheduled with Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats during his visit.

Over the past three decades, Sudan’s government has been implicated in what Congress has termed two genocides, one in the nation’s south that cost as many of 2 million lives, in part from famine, and one in the nation’s western province of Darfur, where an additional 300,000 people died, according to the United Nations. Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Karti oversaw the popular Defense Force militias for a time during the first genocide, and according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, Karti is also credited with organizing the janjaweed militia, the brutal forces that terrorized Darfur. Now, after South Sudan’s independence, the fighting is intensifying in South Kordofan, a border region in Sudan. Aerial bombardments by the government are routine. On January 20, a Medecins Sans Frontières hospital–one of the only sources of humanitarian aid in the region–was bombed for the second time, and the facility was forced to close.

Below is a transcript of TIME’s interview with Karti, edited only lightly for grammar clarity, published in full because Karti so rarely speaks on the record with reporters. The full story, “Sudan: The Forgotten War,” is in this week’s magazine and online here.

TIME: What kind of bridges do you want to build?

ALI AHMED KARTI: To me it begins from the faith, from bringing people together, from trying to build relations between nations, maybe they are different in their faith, and they may be for sure they are different in ethnicities, what is huge between south and west is this very big divide. So I’ve been educated and trained in a country whereby people, they do not know about the west. Still they think they can outreach. But what had been in the history was tremendously injuring the relationship between south, and between and west and east. To begin with the colonial period, when people were subjected to so many atrocities, and the history of that is still injuring their vision about how can they be together again with some people from the west.

I am a foreign minister of my country, and I have been following this not like any other Sudanese, normal Sudanese. Maybe a normal Sudanese, he would just remark that there is a problem. But to me the problem is projected in so many ways. I am a politician, I can see how damaging having bad relations with a great country like U.S. and also having media, negative media talking about my country and about my people. So this is one of the ways that I deemed very good, and it is fruitful, it proved to be fruitful through time. Yes, I am talking formally with the government, and I am talking formally with the ambassador there in Khartoum, but still there are so many ways of trying to get to the hearts of people other than this formal way, because in the formal relations, government to government, you have limits, but when it goes to the hearts of people, you don’t have limits.

It will be easy for me to invite others to see the country to see the situation, and to assess by themselves, even media, everybody who is interested in that. We have been open for so many years before, and I have been on this track for more than eight years now. And to me it will be the only way that I can go through, and the only way that will also help in projecting my country, and my people and the lifestyle of life there in the country and the moderate way of people used to live and the coexistence that have been through our life in the country since it has been a country called Sudan. We used to have different faiths, whether Islam, Christianity, nonbeliever also are still there in the country, in some parts of the eastern, south eastern parts of our country, and we used to lived together. We did not witness in our life or the life of our predecessors a kind of conflict based on religion. If you go there to Khartoum you will find people living together. You will find mosques and churches almost some meters between them, and we have never had in our history of fights just because somebody is a Muslim or a Christian. Not only this, but we are Muslims, we have also our schools in the Muslim sphere, also there are schools in the church, we have different church, we have the Sudan Council of church, we have also evangelicals, we have Coptics in the country, and themselves, they are also making a very good example of coexistence between themselves and between them all and the Muslim community. And some friends who visit Sudan from this country, they are seeing how people are living together, how people are receptive to them, some of them were church leaders, some of them were writers, and some of the activists who have been there in the country, they have seen something different, some of them came here to speak to friends and to others that things are not like what is going on in the media. Things are totally different.

In this respect, I would hope to see you there, to go freely, we would not make any program for you, not only you but other friends who are working on this. You will be there, we will help you to go wherever you want to go, and it is up to you, you write your heart, and you write your visit, this is the only way to put down the walls and to build bridges and to bring people together.

What does spiritual diplomacy mean for you, and what will you be doing here, with friends, toward that end?

I told you I am not here on a formal visit, and I am not representing anybody here, but I am Sudanese, and I am somebody who can also have some effect on my country, and my relationship with people here on this side of faith can benefit both our countries and both our nations. I can see it could be the easiest and the swiftest way in getting to the hearts of people, if you speak the same language that Jesus could be our guidance, both of us, Muslims and followers of Jesus from this country,

I deem myself a follower of Jesus. According to our beliefs in Islam, if you are not a believer of Jesus, you are not a believer of Mohammed, and if you are not a believer of Mohammed, that means you are out of Islam. So it is part and parcel of our belief in God and Islam that Jesus is also our prophet, and we deem ourselves followers of Jesus, so in that respect we feel we are together. Yes, there are so many differences, as even in Christianity there are so many differences, we have some differences, but what we really share is very big, and we can base on that, and we can bring people on this way of believing in Jesus and believing that his directions and his directives are suitable for Muslims and for Christians. So if that is so, that means we can get closer to each other without remembering that we are different in nations or that we have different political setup. I have seen it.

So many people with whom if I speak politics, we will fall apart. So when we come together on this basis, I think it will be easy for us to get through and open hearts. And by opening hearts we can go through the difficulties also and we can resolve so many issues and outstanding problems.

So the United States plans to take Cuba off of its list of states that sponsor terrorism, which leaves Sudan, Iran, and Syria the only ones left. How would you argue that Sudan, like Cuba, should be taken off of the list?

This is my mission also to your people here, whether on the basis of faith or on the basis of politics, that we really need to focus on the situation of Sudan, and to verify if Sudan is sponsoring terror or not. According to the reports that are issued here in this country and according to those who are interested in this issue and those who are following this issue, I can’t find any report that is accusing Sudan of sponsoring terror, but you know politics.

It is not easy to get through a decision like this, because so many through history have been in this business of putting Sudan in that cage. So it needs time for them to understand, it needs time for them also, there are some NGOs who have been through time benefitting from putting Sudan in that situation. So it will only be possible if we are able to let people understand really the situation of Sudan, and that putting Sudan under that opposition, that means that we are putting Sudan in sanctions, and sanctions are cutting the throats of the needy people in the country. Maybe the government is mainly intended to crack down or to be weakened, but what is now weakened is the population, especially those who are in the peripheries, and especially those who are deemed to be, who need the assistance. So instead of looking to the country and a country under these sanctions should not be helped, I think it is better for those who really adopt the idea of helping others is to look at the matter from this perspective.

Yes it needs time, yes it needs talking to so many, there are so many institutions here in this country, they need to understand and they need also to know the situation better, some of them they know, but you know politics is something that is, nobody can expect how things should go forward and maybe through time, we’ll be able also to go through the same line of Cuba.

So one of the things we’ve been hearing from the UN is that 10% of the Rapid Support Forces’ operations are against the armed opposition, but 90% are against civilians. I’m wondering if you could respond to that.

No, nobody could think of something like that. Why should the government put that heavyweight on the civilians? Why? The government is a government for the people, and if you know the political setup in the country, you will see by yourself how people are represented, from the level of a village to the level of some town and to the level of districts and to the central level of the assemblies and the level of government.

If you have representatives everywhere, then nobody can do anything without those representatives, having idea of that or talking about that. If you go through the media in Sudan, you will find opposition, maybe the majority of papers that are issued in the country to now, they have every right to go anywhere and talk about anything that may be causing atrocities to their home land and people, so if nothing is coming out of that, that means that is only portraying the country in a way that will not at all help somebody like me to convince those who are in charge of a decision like removing Sudan from the list of terror, they want to keep the country there.

But I will bet if anybody is ready to go to the country, we will give him the opportunity to go by himself and assess what is going on there, look for an inquisition that they claim that there are so many rapes in a village in Darfur, you know what was behind that, what was behind that was a message to those people who had been driven from their village to go to the camps, those days they were ready to go back to their village. Why? Because that was one of the villages that was rebuilt again, in a very modern way, with schools, with health care center, with police center, with so many services and water resources, and the message was to them, don’t go back to Tabit, because Tabit is under mass rape, and when it was verified by the UNAMID when they went there, they found nothing of that, because nobody can expect a village like Tabit which had been a home for some hundreds of the soldiers there, they have their homes there, they have their wives there, and they are living in a camp near that place, no one will expect those soldiers will come and rape by hundreds in that village.

So you know messages like this come out of the expectation that the government is trying to normalize the situation, so instead of leaving the government normalize the situation, we just flare up something like this for people not to go back, not only for Tabit people but also for other people who are requesting to go back to their homes. If you are fleeing this place because there is no security, then the police is there, and not only the police is there, but the army is there, and it will protect you against anyone who will infringe your security. And not only that you will have new homes, you will have health services, you will have water resources, and you will have whatever you wish in a village that had been destroyed before 7 or 8 years, so the message was not to us or to you, its to those who should go back to their homes, because they wanted to keep them in the camps, they wanted to keep, the nature of the strife there in the country, that it is still not safe to go back, why for also? There are also some NGOs that are living on collecting money that they want to go to the camps and keep these people there. This is cutting throats of so many, and the line is there, tell the donors here, they should be kept seeing the situation unstable and for them also to pay money also for those who are living on this money.

There’s a report out today about some of the carnage in the Nuba Mountains. There are some really horrible photographs that I wanted to show you, it’s children–I know you’ve seen probably worse, but I know it is all very scarring. This is in a report out of the Nuba Mountains today with lots of children who have allegedly been burned, you can scroll here

Did they tell you who burned them?

My question is, Is it true that this is happening now, with your government planes and artillery, in your country?

Nothing of that is happening. Nobody can make his policy like that. Nobody is targeting his own people. What happens is that, those rebels they get in the villages sometimes, they do it themselves and they send it to you to here, to the media, and for verification I really commend some journalists to go there to verify who is doing this. So many reports are there like this have been sent about Darfur, through five or six years we have been under this kind of media. When people went there from the west and from other countries, they found that these are untrue narratives. You may find somebody who has been, yes, targeted, but who targeted him? This is a story from one side. This is a story from one side.

We have been also noticing, through the last years, heavy attacks put on civilians in South Kordofan and also in North Kordofan, and that had been reported to you here and everywhere. But nobody took it serious. It was those same rebels who attacked the villages and killed so many hundreds at one day and also burned so many houses at the same day and destroyed everything and they looted everything, and they went back to the border of South Sudan and in such a situation, you cannot verify who is doing this. I’m not saying that government is not using artillery, it is using artillery against combatants, it is not using artillery against civilians. There is no reason, why should the government target its own civilians? Nothing of that could happen. Because we have leaders from those leaders, they know what is going on there, they know who is targeting their own civilians there.

What do you do about this?

We just try to verify, and you see a new story again, and for you to verify which is right of these stories, and you know the media, every day you see things, and when you stay for some hours you will find something different. You will find another story. It is better for somebody who is working on this issue to have time to verify, it is easy just to have this story and report it and say this is the government. But why should the government target its own people? And if there is only one bomb that is maybe on an area where rebels are taking that area, something like this could happen.

We are seeing so many causalities happening from bombings some areas in Afghanistan, with really modern technologies, but nevertheless there casualties. I’m not saying that we do not have this in our country. But if it happens then that matter will be under investigation and they will know what had been wrong. But I assure you the government will not at all target its own civilians. So if you have causalities like what is happening in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or even in Iraq, at some point of time, something like this could happen. I’m not in a position now to tell you who did this, but you are a reporter, somebody who is interested in this, you should verify these narratives.

So, we are in a setting right now where there are a lot of international aid groups, especially groups of different faith backgrounds, groups that want to do international aid in Sudan, or have been doing aid work in different regions in Sudan for some time, and I’m wondering, how do you counsel them about how they can help, when there are situations like even this week, Médecins Sans Frontières, their hospital was bombed for the second time, and they say it was the government. In South Kordofan. They’ve been pushed out, they had to leave, and they say this government bombing. So when you are in a setting like this, how do you work with international–

Look we cannot open our doors for an NGO, or anybody, and receive him, give him facilities, and then we bomb him. Can you think, for yourself now, can that be possible if there is no other story which has not been told to you?

The reason I ask these questions is–you can respond and then we can share your voice about that.

When somebody applies to come to Sudan and work, for those needy people the government will make its own assessment and it will open doors for whoever is ready to go there. And there are instructions about how you do your work, and which place, and how you do it, and the custody of whom, so if somebody is coming through the government and he is trying to outlean and deal with the rebels, than he is doing wrong. You will not be told that he is doing something wrong, and for this reason, he had been there at the territory of the rebels. So you need to verify, why should the government target somebody who has been allowed formally and legally to come to the country and work with those people who are in need.

So nothing of that could happen. There should be a missing story, and what is really meant to be missing for you just to portray that the government is bombing this or that. So I would hope if you have time, and even if it is not you, your people, who are in charge of this, would allot somebody or some two or three of you, to go and investigate on that. If they are really interested to know the fact, they will know the facts.

What is the missing story?

I don’t know if this is the missing story. But I would think that there is something wrong that happened that took them from the place where they were authorized to work to another place where they were not authorized to work. Because if you are coming through my doors, and you are going to work with the rebels, that means you are doing something different. And if you are crossing South Sudan borders just to work with the rebels, then you don’t have any security. That means you are working in an area that is targeted. So if you are coming from south Sudan without the authority knowing that you are there and without any permission, that means that you are putting yourself in that jeopardized way.

Could you tell me how your government is getting gold, and are there any areas that consumers should be concerned about where the gold is coming from?

The gold is coming from the country and it is authorized by the government and there are so many companies they come there, they apply for permission, they apply for concessions, and they have agreements on that. And this is one side of it. The other side is, there are some, maybe thousands of Sudanese who used to have the local way of collecting gold from the surface of the ground. So most of them, they have agreement with the government and through that the government is using this gold as Sudanese export, and all of it is legal, nothing is illegal. Nothing is illegal. Nothing is falsified from anybody. Nobody is forced to even sell to the government if he doesn’t want to sell to the government. Nobody is forced to give his land to the government and to do something that is illegal.

So instead of listening to stories like this, it is also good to go there. We have a mining ministry, and you can see the concessions, you can see the companies, you can visit areas where the companies, even the normal citizens in a very traditional way collecting gold from the surface of the ground. They are living their life, nobody is forcing them to do anything. So it is also good to go there and see by yourself.

Earlier this week, there was some news about a tentative peace agreement with South Sudan president Salva Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Machar. I’m wondering, do you pledge to support that peace agreement, and would Khartoum back a power-sharing agreement in South Sudan?

We have been behind that. We have been trying our best to bring them together, but unfortunately, agreements, this may be the fifth agreement that has been signed, but nobody is abiding by the agreement. The agreements did not hold. You know they have their differences. They still think it is best to go to the jungle and fight. Unfortunately. This is what I see everyday. So people are working from everywhere especially the region, and we are very active in that, and unfortunately we were not able to get to an agreement through the last five days when we were there in Addis Ababa.

If this latest agreement though, would you support an international arms embargo on all parties?

No. I don’t think it is wise now. Because we know the situation in South Sudan. If you have such forces, they may fight everywhere and they will not know who is their enemy. In the region, we do not support something like this. We are part of the region and we know how this will spoil the situation.

In know you have been alluding to this, and we have been talking about this some in previous questions, but as you said one of the main conversation points here about what is happening in Sudan is, is it an insurgency or are there war crimes happening? Which is it? What is the Sudanese government doing? Where do you draw those lines?

Good, it is good that you asked me that. You know what the government is doing in Sudan, but you did not ask me about anything positive in the country. You only asked me about the media, what is projecting into you here in the west. You did not ask me about how we opened our door for South Sudan to secede by an agreement. And that was fully backed up by the whole nation, that if the South Sudanese want to secede, they are free do to that. And by an agreement we did that. You did not ask me about the 450,000 who fled South Sudan again to come again to Sudan. We opened our doors, our hearts, and everything for them. We fed them, we gave them lodging, we gave them health care, and we opened our schools and even universities for them to go there, for free. You did not ask me about the endeavors of the government is doing to transform the lives of the people there, although they are under sanctions. You did not ask me about the elections, we are about to hold during two or three months. You did not ask me about anything that is positive in the country. Shall I have another time to talk about this?

Minister, with these questions, I am giving you the opportunity to tell that side of the story.

I am more than ready to go on that another time if you have time. Maybe the ambassador will also arrange for something for you to come, or for me also, to come to you again and speak on that.

I have time, but if you do not want to do it now that is your choice.

No, it is not that I don’t want to do it. The problem is that we have another appointment.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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