Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

One Last Effort to Undermine Faith, Hope and Charity in the Middle East

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

One Last Effort to Undermine Faith, Hope and Charity in the Middle East

Article excerpt

AMERICANS are losing their jobs, homes and retirement savings, and many can't afford health care, food, gas or heat. Palestinians have faced those same hardships for years. There is now worldwide financial chaos, thanks primarily to the George W. Bush administration's relentless deregulation of financial institutions. In the final days of Bush's term, the White House is slamming through a series of new rules to further relax federal regulations on the economy, environment, emissions of pollutants, mining exploration, commercial fishing, and even workers' safety.

That makes it even more perplexing that, in this climate of loosening government controls, the Bush administration is promoting tough new regulations that could suffocate charities operating in the Middle East. American humanitarian agencies which for decades have provided economic, social and emergency assistance-and hope-to people in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel may be in jeopardy. And big-hearted Americans have no idea what is happening.

In the months following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush ordered the assets of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and five other U.S.-based Muslim charities frozen and their doors closed. Federal officials claimed the charities supported terrorists-a charge no jury has agreed with. In fact, no jury has found the groups guilty of any wrongdoing.

The first trial against the Holy Land Foundation ended Oct. 22, 2007 in a mistrial, with an acquittal on most charges. In the course of that trial, the government did not argue that Holy Land directly supported terrorist groups. Instead, prosecutors claimed that the charity provided money to committees in the West Bank and Gaza that were controlled by Hamas and, in doing so, created goodwill toward the organization, helping it recruit members.

"The whole case was based on assumptions that were based on suspicions," juror Nanette Scroggins told the Los Angeles Times. "If they had been a Christian or Jewish group, I don't think [prosecutors] would have brought charges against them."

That's not stopping them from trying again, however. As we go to press, federal prosecutors are retrying the Holy Land case in Dallas.

The stigma of these legal actions has had a chilling effect on donors and volunteers alike. Donations to U.S. Muslim charities providing assistance in war-torn or earthquake-ravaged regions have dropped, even though recipients continue to need help.

Bush's faith-based initiatives were a cornerstone of his 2000 campaign, when he argued that grassroots efforts can be more effective than big government in delivering services to the needy. He praised religious organizations which provide help to the needy. But when it comes to Muslim religious organizations, or even non-religious do-gooders in the Middle East, the Bush administration suspects they are up to no good.

Israel also has stepped up efforts to close faith-based Palestinian charities operating in the occupied territories. Israeli soldiers have seized school buses and sewing machines, emptied warehouses, and destroyed ovens used by the Islamic Charitable Society, established in 1962 in the West Bank city of Hebron to take care of orphans. It is more important than ever for American charities to step in to help.

Americans have plenty of ways to send relief across the globe to Palestinian and now Iraqi refugees, to Lebanese trying to rebuild after Israel's attacks, or to victims of earthquakes or hurricanes. But the U.S. government is making charities jump through more and more hoops before financial assistance, school supplies and medical aid are able to reach the needy.

U.S. charities are required to take "precautionary measures" in "high-risk areas," and vet their local employees, partners and grantees. In November 2002 the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued onerous "Anti-terrorist Financing Guidelines: Voluntary Best Practices for U. …

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