Muslim Charities Struggle to Stay Open

Last year, workers at a small Muslim social service agency in Virginia received a disturbing letter from their bank. After six years, Wachovia Corp. was closing the account of the five-person agency that specializes in domestic violence services and other types of immediate assistance to families of all religious backgrounds.

"We were totally shocked," said Margaret Farchtchi, board treasurer of the Foundation for Appropriate and Immediate Temporary Help, also known as FAITH. "We always kept our accounts in good shape."

But the agency also had other reasons to think that they would not be targeted. "We felt very secure because we are a local charity," explained Farchtchi. "We don't have donors from overseas. We thought we were out of what you might call the danger zone."

Many people thought the same. As such, the story of FAITH illustrates the challenge now facing the Muslim community. Since 9/11, the government has frozen the assets of six large Muslim organizations and shut them down -- although no one has been convicted of any crime. People, in turn, have begun donating in larger numbers to local charities, assuming these organizations to be free of international ties and safe from government interference. But the experience of FAITH suggests that there are no guarantees.

"It's still very much happening five years later as it did a year later," said Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago. Rehab himself used to donate to humanitarian causes in Egypt and India but now gives to his local mosque.

Last year in Illinois, a coalition of Muslim and other religious organizations pushed the Illinois State Assembly to pass a resolution called "Charity Without Fear." The resolution called on the federal government to create a list of organizations that are safe for people to contribute to without fear of being questioned by the government. The Bush administration has made no move to respond.

With or without fear, many Muslims contribute 10 percent of their annual income to charity. Having turned to local organizations, they have begun to directly impact mosques.

"Donations are back to the levels of pre-September 11 and are better," said Mohammed Sahloul, president of the Mosque Foundation, which has about 4,000 attendees for prayer service on Fridays. The mosque's budget has doubled from $500,000 to $1 million, and they have used the new money to expand the mosque and remodel the youth center.

Sahloul says that most people used to give 70 percent of their donations for charities abroad and 30 percent to local causes. Now, it's the opposite, with 70 percent going to local organizations and mosques.

But with the closure of FAITH's account in Virginia, many leaders think a signal is being sent to the community that no organization is safe.

In Toledo, Ohio, the FBI planted an informant in the Muslim charity KindHearts three years ago. This spring, the government shut down the charity and froze its $1 million assets, accusing the organization of financially supporting Hamas, which the Bush administration considers to be a terrorist group. At the same time, the government arrested three men in Toledo on suspicion of terrorism. The connection to KindHearts? Some invoices and a change purse with the KindHearts logo were found at one of the men's homes, according to government officials.

In Virginia, FAITH isn't the only one under attack. Wachovia has apparently closed accounts held by five Muslim organizations in Virginia. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that FAITH may have come under scrutiny because it received a large donation from a Muslim businessman whose home and accounts were raided by the government in 2002.

In June, FAITH's board of directors was in talks with the Wachovia Corp., hoping that the organization's account might be reopened.

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