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Muslim Charities See Decline in Donations After US Terror Attacks

Muslims traditionally increase charitable donations during the holy month, Ramadan, but many relief groups have experienced a drop in offerings since the U.S. administration launched its war on terrorism.

In the aftermath of last year's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, thousands of suspects were detained. Most of them are Muslims and Arab immigrants detained for immigration violations.

The New York-based Islamic Council of North America has been raising funds to help pay for lawyers and care for their families.

Adam Carroll says the council currently provides financial relief for about 200 families. Most donations come from within the Muslim community. "We have always relied on the Muslim circle and most institutions relied on traditional Muslim giving, at the mosque on Friday, at holiday time, small checks come in from around the country for $50 or $100. That is how our programs have been supported for years," he said.

As needs increased, Mr. Carroll has tried to raise funds outside the community, seeking foundation grants and institutional gifts. It is not easy.

"Now we are trying to learn to fundraise and we are finding resistance. People outside our community do not necessarily trust an organization that has the word Islamic in the name," he said.

Many Islamic groups complain the U.S. government's war on terrorism has unjustly tainted them.

Just this week the Bush administration added three Islamic charities to the list of Islamic organizations they suspect of links to terrorist groups.

Islamic Council Secretary General Naim Baig says many Muslims are afraid they will be investigated or detained if they send donations to charities working overseas.

Mr. Baig has seen a drop in donations even during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time for charity.

"Last year the month of Ramadan was in December and we noticed a decline in the donations up to almost 25 to 30 percent," he said. "I hope that it has been already a year and policies of the U.S. government are much clearer now. And it should give a good sign to the community that organizations that are open and not involved in any such activities that are not good, those organizations should be supported and what we are doing is helping the poor and needy."

The 30-year-old Islamic Council, like many other Islamic charities, funds emergency relief programs and education projects in more than a dozen countries, many of them in the Muslim world.

As the U.S. war on terrorism progresses, Mr. Baig says Islamic charities with international connections have come under scrutiny.

He says the Islamic Council's books are audited on a regular basis and reports on its projects are public. He says the organization has added disclaimers to its direct mailings and fundraising appeals to reassure potential donors of the organization's legitimate credentials.

"And we are very open with the community," he said. "We say, 'Look, these are out projects, anyone can go and look we are not hiding anything'. We have a good track record. Our organization is in the United States for the last 30 years and people trust us."

Omar al-Qaidi, of Mercy USA for Aid and Development, says concerns raised by donors prompted his Michigan-based group to put a statement on its website and fundraising mailers to highlight the group's close ties with the U.S. government.

"I do not think we should be in the position of having to do that, but I guess that is the world we live in right now," he said.

Islamic charities complain the war on terrorism has affected fund-raising, but the economic downturn has hurt them too

Most non-profit Islamic charities rely on donations, known in Arabic as 'Zakat', one of the five pillars of Islam. "You pay 2.5 percent on the money you have not touched for 12 months or one year," he said. "So, if these people are dipping into their savings to pay mortgages and rents, so there is much less money there for Zakat."

Habiba Husain depends on hefty contributions from wealthy donors to finance her charity work in Santa Clara, California.

The Rahima Foundation spends an average of $25,000 a month to help feed, clothe and shelter several hundred needy families in the Muslim community there.

Ms. Husain had hoped that new Muslim concerns about sending money out of the country would benefit her charity. But, that dream has been dashed by the collapse of high-tech companies in the area that put many of her wealthy donors out of work or on reduced salaries.

Islamic leaders say they understand the economic problems and fears of American Muslims in the current climate of suspicion. But fundraisers say they have nothing to hide and must not shrink from their humanitarian responsibilities.