Charity strives to keep 'clean' - Islamic Relief USA

Charity strives to keep ‘clean’

The Chicago Tribune

August 29, 2006

By Deborah Horan

Anwar Khan is short on details but strong in his belief that the aid his worldwide Muslim charity has donated to help rebuild Lebanon will not end up in the hands of Hezbollah.

The money–$2 million collected nationwide since the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict began, including about $200,000 from Chicago-area Muslims–is funneled through legitimate organizations, he said, including the Lebanese Red Cross. In some cases, a representative of Khan’s Islamic Relief, based in Buena Park, Calif., is on location.

“That’s our job, to monitor that,” Khan said at a recent fundraiser in a Villa Park mosque. “We have to make sure relief supplies aren’t given to any political organization.”

But while Khan’s intent appears sincere–and Islamic Relief has never run into problems with U.S. authorities, according to a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department–making sure donations don’t come into contact with Hezbollah volunteers may be harder in practice, aid workers said.

The Shiite organization has ministers in government, members of parliament, mayors in small towns and a network of thousands of volunteers who have been ferrying aid supplies to devastated areas since a cease-fire took effect earlier this month. Yet contact with Hezbollah, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization, could put a charity at risk of being shut down.

“Every U.S. aid agency is facing the exact same problem,” said a spokesman for a West Coast aid agency operating in Lebanon, who asked not to be named because the subject is “super, super, super sensitive.” “We’re waiting on word from the Treasury on that. We’re waiting on some sort of guidance.”

The Treasury spokeswoman, Molly Millerwise, said charities operating in the U.S. are barred from knowingly financing or “working with” Hezbollah. The question is what might constitute “working with,” given that many Lebanese officials are affiliated with the group.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the government issued general guidelines meant to help charities maintain transparency and prevent money from being diverted to groups or individuals that the government has designated as terrorists. It also created a list of some 400 individuals and organizations, including 43 charities, that it accuses of funding terrorism, Treasury officials said.

Muslim charity workers have asked the department to create a second list of charities it considers “safe” to donate to, but so far it has refused on the grounds that terrorists might then try to infiltrate those agencies, officials said.

“Even if we designated a charity `clean,’ there’s no way we could ensure it would stay so,” Millerwise said.

Guidance from the Treasury Department has been slow regarding Lebanon, aid workers complain. So far, the government has not issued specific guidelines for operating in the country and instead have encouraged charities to practice “due diligence” to ensure that their assets are used for charity and not diverted to finance terrorism, Millerwise said.

Government officials quietly acknowledge the difficulty in distributing aid in areas like Lebanon without coming into contact with Hezbollah. As long as a charity maintains transparency, it will likely remain safe from government seizure, they said. And the Treasury Department has never gone after an innocent donor duped into giving to a charity later accused of ties to terrorism, they said.

Still, Ahmed Younis of the Washington-based Muslim Public Affairs Council said Muslim charities will not feel completely comfortable until the U.S. sets clear guidelines. Otherwise, “there is always fear that Treasury will come back and reprimand us,” Younis said.

Last year, the council teamed with the Islamic Society of North America and the Treasury Department to set up a self-policing organization called the National Council of American Muslim Non-Profits. But soon after its creation, the government froze the assets of a Toledo, Ohio-based charity on the steering committee called KindHearts.

“It undermined the argument that this was an oversight thing,” Younis said. “Oversight became a great challenge after that.”

The seizure of charity assets hasn’t stopped donations, Muslim charity workers said. Islamic Relief’s funds have increased every year since 2001, said Khan, the charity’s development director.

He acknowledges that his organization’s gains might have come in part because other charities ran into trouble. Simply put, there are fewer Muslim charities for donors to choose from, he said.

But Islamic Relief also benefits from a reputation of trustworthiness, said mainstream aid workers, as well as other Muslim ones. Islamic Relief has helped victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami in addition to people in the Middle East.

At Khan’s fundraiser in Villa Park, the Muslims who gathered for a dinner of rice and kebabs spoke abstractly about fear of giving in the community. But none said they personally were afraid to give, particularly to Islamic Relief.

“I trust them,” said Navid Rehman, 38, a medical assistant who has been donating to the charity for five years. “Whatever they promise, they come through. I’m not worried.”

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