Government Tries To Reassure Muslims On Charities

Muslims, who are required by their religion to donate to charity, are getting advice from the Treasury Department on how to avoid groups that might use the money for terrorism. The department has put several Islamic charities on a list of groups that finance terrorism.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

The government of this country has accused several Muslim charities of funneling money to terrorist groups in the last decade, especially since the 9/11 attacks. That's put a chill on donations to Arab-American and Muslim organizations. Yesterday representatives of the Treasury Department sat down with an Arab advocacy group hoping to reassure both charities and donors.

As NPR's Allison Keyes reports, now the skepticism in the room was tangible.

ALLISON KEYES: Chip Poncy looked around the U-shaped table and tried to convince the charities and non-profit representatives sitting there that the government's anti-terrorist financing program shouldn't strike fear into the hearts of nervous donors.

Mr. CHIP PONCY (Director, Office of Strategic Policy for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, U.S. Treasury Department): Donors that are not complicit in this effort have not been targeted and they won't be targeted. Does that mean that donors can just give willy-nilly? No, because we've all seen and heard the frustrations of donors who end up with their funds frozen. And that's not a good outcome; that's not a good outcome for anybody. The right outcome is donations that are ultimately successful in reaching the intended beneficiary.

KEYES: Poncy is the strategic policy director for the Terrorism Finance Office at the Treasury Department. The government says that terrorist groups like al-Qaida establish charities or use existing ones to both provide services and support terrorism. Poncy says charities that do fund terrorist organizations will find themselves in trouble.

Mr. PONCY: The U.S. has been very aggressive and will continue to be aggressive in having a strict enforcement policy of the law of not supporting terrorist organizations.

KEYES: Kareem Shora, executive director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, known as ADC, says that's why potential donors feel at risk.

Mr. KAREEM SHORA (Executive Director, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee): Unless there's a law protecting the donor community from the Treasury Department or the Justice Department going after them, then I'm not going to feel comfortable as a donor.

KEYES: Shora says there should be a way to protect people from prosecution if in good faith they donate money to help people.

Mr. SHORA: As a community organization we get asked this question routinely. And we have to say, well, they haven't gone after anyone. That's great. What protects me legally? You're saying nothing.

KEYES: Poncy acknowledged that those are legitimate concerns.

Mr. PONCY: The fact is there isn't that protection that you're talking about. There is this safe harbor for donors just as there isn't for charities.

KEYES: The chilling effect on donations is especially difficult for Muslims, who have a religious obligation to give. There's also a time issues. Nawar Shora is ADC's legal director.

Mr. NAWAR SHORA (Legal Director, ADC): Ramadan's in two weeks. What's going to get raided this month? I mean, it's been several years in a row where something gets hit during the holiest month for Muslims. And that's like raiding the Salvation Army on Christmas Eve. I mean, you don't do that.

KEYES: The government has said its investigations aren't time to holidays, and it has said its probe aren't targeted at any race or religion. It's also established anti-terrorist financing guidelines. These voluntary practices suggest that charities check out their employees and grantees then check with the government to see if they're legitimate.

But several non-profit staffers at the roundtable noted that the guidelines aren't clear and people are still afraid to donate.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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