Christians have long viewed the James 1:27's admonition about caring for "widows and orphans" as integral to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Indeed, Christians have long donated generously to foreign aid organizations. Countless Christian organizations have made it a key part of their faith mission to mitigate famine in Africa, recover from natural disasters in Asia, and protect the vulnerable during civil wars in Latin America.
Yet this laudable goal is fraught with peril. Operating in areas of conflict can result in being played as patsies for terrorists and dictators. The enormous Christian aid charity World Vision, for example, has been called out multiple times for funding and working with terrorists in Gaza, Sudan, and Lebanon. In recent years, this problem has been widely exposed; one would hope that renewed efforts on the part of Christian aid charities would ensure these kinds of mistakes didn't happen again.
However, one thing that has received very little attention is Christian charities' collaboration with domestic aid organizations that have radical, Islamist ideologies. As difficult as it may be to believe, a large number of Christian charities are inadvertently helping to shield a number of such aid organizations from legitimate concerns of radicalism and terror finance.
InterAction, which bills itself as the largest alliance of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the world, was founded in 1984 and represents over 180 different charities. A significant proportion of InterAction members are faith-based organizations, including at least 30 self-identified Christian charities,* alongside various Islamic, Buddhist, and Jewish charities. This large and influential organization seeks to "mobilize our Members to think and act collectively to serve the world's poor and vulnerable."
Partnering with groups of other faiths to achieve a common goal is certainly unobjectionable. However, InterAction's activities go far beyond simple assistance with international aid efforts. Shockingly, in 2017, InterAction created the "Together Project," a sub-umbrella specifically aimed at stifling criticism of five specific Islamist charities that are InterAction members. These five charities have been called out by various scholars and researchers, members of Congress, and journalists for being franchises of radical networks, with several involved in terror finance.
Ostensibly, the Together Project is aimed at combatting "discrimination or targeted prejudicial regulations in the US due to their operating principles or religious faith." But not a single Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist charity are the beneficiaries of the Together Project's efforts. All five beneficiaries—Helping Hand for Relief and Development, Islamic Relief, Zakat Foundation of America, American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa, and United Muslim Relief—are Islamist charities with clear extremist affiliations.
In reality, defending charities with clear affiliations with radical movements and terror finance from scrutiny does not protect Muslims from prejudice. Rather, assuming Islamist charities represent all or most Muslims is itself a form of bigotry.
Indeed, most Muslims who give to any of these charities undoubtedly have the best intentions and would not support any organization if they believed their donations were going to radicalism or terrorism. It should also be noted that a number of other Muslim InterAction members have no issues concerning radicalism or terror finance. But these non-terror-linked Muslim charities are curiously not the beneficiaries of the Together Project's work, underscoring that the true purpose of the endeavor is to protect these five Islamist charities from legitimate concerns.
A recent National Review article concerning the Together Project explained some of the serious problems with core charities of the Together Project in detail. For example, one leading member is Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), a subsidiary of one of eight major branches of Jamaat-e-Islami in the world. Jamaat-e-Islami is a violent South Asian Islamist movement responsible for mass murder and rape during Bangladesh's war for independence, and which has been involved in hundreds of terrorism plots over many decades. For its part, HHRD has recently been involved in funding and partnering with multiple US-designated terrorist organizations, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen, and Hamas. These facts alarmed several members of Congress, who have sent a letter to the Trump administration requesting an investigation, and also introduced a resolution calling on the government to disassociate with Jamaat-e-Islami in all its forms.
Another core Together Project member is Islamic Relief (IR). Designated as a terror-financing organization in the United Arab Emirates and Israel, IR also works closely with multiple Hamas front groups. One of its founders, Essam El-Haddad, was a senior official of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Office and is currently in an Egyptian jail, convicted of espionage. During the trial, he was accused, among other things, of using IR to fund terrorism. A 2018 congressional hearing on the Muslim Brotherhood named IR as part of the Muslim Brotherhood's operations in the West and also raised concerns about the charity's connections to terror finance.
InterAction members such as Baptist World Alliance (BWA), which seeks "peace for all persons" to "uphold the claims of fundamental human rights," ought to be concerned about being affiliated with groups like HHRD and IR at all. Their ties to violent extremism abroad, and support for anti-Semitism and other hatreds at home, irrefutably contradict BWA's mission.
Of course, reasonable people can debate at what point a problem member should require one to disassociate from a larger group. But the Islamist charities that make up the core of the Together Project are not merely tangentially associated with other InterAction members. In fact, the very purpose of the Together Project is to use the association with charities such as Bethany Christian Services, Habitat for Humanity, Feed the Children, and others with excellent reputations to deflect criticism from these radical groups. This "large informal support network" is explicitly cited by Together Project lobbyists when they meet with members of Congress on behalf of groups like IR and HHRD. Indeed, one of the Together Project's key strategies is to "stress interconnectedness" between these Islamist charities and other InterAction members.
Cross International, for example, which seeks to "strategically advance the gospel," should be very concerned about such "interconnectedness," the purpose of which is to use their good name to deflect concern about terror finance and radicalism. It is hard to see this as anything but an affront to what Cross International believes in.
Often, these charities are openly working at cross purposes. HHRD, for example, has been very active in Kashmir—a terror-laden area disputed by Pakistan, India, and China—working on 214 projects with Pakistan's Al-Khidmat Foundation, a Jamaat-e-Islami organization. According to prominent scholars, Al-Khidmat "helps to support Hizbul Mujahideen," a US-designated terrorist organization responsible for ethnic cleansing of the region. At the same time Catholic Relief Services works in both India and Pakistan, undoubtedly, at times, to fix problems created by groups like Hizbul Mujahideen. Supporting efforts to obscure HHRD's misdeeds harms the people of Kashmir and undermines Christian charities' efforts.
It is very likely that the Christian member organizations of InterAction are largely unfamiliar with the Together Project, or how it is using their good name for their own ends. Matthew 10:16 tells Christians they should be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves." These Christian charities need to get wise when it comes to InterAction's Together Project. They must demand change. To do otherwise is to hurt the very people Christians seek to help.
Cliff Smith is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project.
* All charities identified above are InterAction members. Self-identified Christian charities involved with InterAction not named in the story include: Adventist Development and Relief Agency, International African Methodist, Episcopal Church Service and Development Agency, Inc., Bread for the World, Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Child Fund International, Church World Service, Cross International, Episcopal Relief & Development, Feed the Children, Finn Church Ais Americas, Food for the Hungry, Giving Children Hope, HOLT International Children's Services, IMA World Health, Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs, International Catholic Migration Commission, International Orthodox Christian Charities, Jesuit Refugee Service, Medical Teams International, Mennonite Central Committee, US Plant with Purpose, Rise Against Hunger, World Hope International, and World Renew.