Pressure on Islamic Charities Complicate Earthquake Giving

According to Census figures, New York City is home to 30,000 Pakistani residents. Many members of the community have spent the last few days trying to contact friends and family in places hit by Saturday's massive earthquake. They have also begun raising money and collecting clothing and supplies to help devastated areas. As WNYC's Collin Campbell reports, recent pressure on Islamic charities has complicated the process.

REPORTER: All along Coney Island Avenue, the storefronts of Pakistani restaurants, barber shops, clothing stores and community organizations are plastered with flyers seeking money and supplies for victims of the earthquake. Outside the Makki mosque, children stand around a collection box. They say it has been filled with cash every day since Saturday.

Inside restaurants, steaming platters of fish, rice and pastries are being served, but Fasul Hak Kazzi didn't come here to eat—like many Muslims—he is fasting for the holy month of Ramadan. Kazzi came to watch GEO TV, an Urdu language network broadcasting non-stop coverage of the disaster.

Pakistan’s green and white flag has decorated the streets here since long before the earthquake. One community leader says bags of clothes and blankets began arriving at his center just hours after word of the earthquake spread. But charitable giving in the Muslim community is a delicate matter. Since September 11th, the FBI has been probing the finances of many New York mosques and Islamic charities. Asghar Choudhri runs the Pakistani American Federation. He says the government’s constant surveillance of the Pakistani community has made people afraid to give--and local mosques and charities are struggling to raise money.

CHOUDRI: For example, if I give a check, when it gets cashed the FBI wants to know where it is going, what kind of mosque is this. On Fridays we have a special prayer and I heard that they have informers sitting there and listening to what's going on, what the imam said and this and that.

REPORTER: Knowing that Pakistani immigrants in the U.S. may be concerned about attracting the FBI’s interest, the government of Pakistan has quickly set up the "President's Relief Fund." Details down to the account's bank routing number have been posted on the Web site for Pakistan's U.S. embassy. And word has gotten out that donating to that fund is trouble-free. Like all donors--Pakistanis here want to know where their money is going.

Suhail Muzaffar says that there is a real concern that the Pakastani government is reaching remote areas where he has friends and family. He is raising money through his mosque in Staten Island and says he has arranged for trucks bearing blankets and water up to the mountain areas most affected to bear the name of his Staten Island Mosque.

MUZAFFAR: You can watch it on TV .

REPORTER: Shaheen Bhatt’s Manhattan restaurant is crowded after sundown. He hopes to raise $200,000 to rebuild a school in Muzaffarabad, where he says 1,500 children are missing or dead. But he too says information gathered by the government about gifts intimidates some Muslims.

BHATT: Let's say somebody wants to give $10,000. Now he has to fill out forms, all those kinds of things. And then he feels shy. He doesn't want to give as much as he would give otherwise.

REPORTER: IRS regulations require anyone who gives a gift of more than $10,000 dollars to fill out a gift schedule, disclosing who the gift was given to. People hoping to get a tax break can’t just give it to the charity of their choice. They must give to a non-profit organization that has been approved by the IRS.

Not only is IRS approval critical but so it the approval of those who are administering the nation’s War on Terrorism. Muzzafir does not want to jeopardize anyone who gives—so before he sends money he’ll meet with the FBI.

MUZZAFIR: We're going to be seeking guidance from them, so we don't end up doing the wrong thing. I want to run by the names of the agencies that we have selected to work with and ask them if their list shows them to be OK or do they look suspicious on their list.

REPORTER: And a list like that exists. The U.S. government maintains a 210-page index of people and groups that Americans should not give money to. It is available online and updated frequently on the Department of the Treasury's Web site. But few Muslim community leaders know about it. James Margolin, a spokesman for the FBI says the bureau is working on that.

MARGOLIN: We do a fair amount of community outreach in the Middle Eastern and Islamic communities in the New York area and this question comes up frequently and this is what we tell people. That, bottom line, people should, for their own protection, do due diligence to determined that their money is in fact going for the purpose that they intend it go for and that we recommend that people check that Treasury Dept Web site for the list of known terrorist financing organizations.

REPORTER: Margolin adds that if a fund is investigated and found to be a source for terrorists unless it can be proved that donors knew this—they will not be found criminally liable. But mostly likely they will be questioned—and being questioned is something that some members of the Pakistani community are afraid of. For WNYC, I’m Collin Campbell.

» U.S. Dept. of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control