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Pro-Israel Views Get NGO in Iraq Defunded by Catholic Charity

The letter dated June 10, 2008 from the Swiss section of the relief agency Caritas to the German aid organization Wadi begins with a thoroughly positive evaluation:

“Our colleague Barbara D. was able recently to form her own impression of the work of Wadi on location. Ms. D. found the projects she visited convincing. She was impressed by the competence and commitment of the local members of the Wadi team … We realize that it is not a simple matter to work as an NGO in northern Iraq. Nonetheless, the Wadi projects — in particular the project on FGM [Female Genital Mutilation] — appear to be highly successful.”

Wadi has been active in Iraq since 1994. It started its campaign against female circumcision three years ago. The fact that the genital mutilation of young girls is not only an African problem, but also related to Islam had been largely avoided in NGO circles on political grounds. But for Wadi this was not an issue. Likewise in contrast to most other aid organizations, Wadi did not leave Iraq following the American invasion. Indeed, its German founders welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds of north Iraq appreciated the group’s constancy. The local population responded positively to the campaign against female circumcision.

The Swiss section of Caritas could be proud of such a success. The Catholic aid agency provides one-fourth of the project’s modest annual budget of €200,000. But now the funding is to be stopped.

“We find it all the more regrettable to have to inform you,” Caritas writes in the above-cited letter, “that we will be ending our cooperation with Wadi starting in February/March 2009. The grounds for our decision concern the political positions taken by Wadi on the Middle East conflict.”

In effect, the aid organization is too pro-Israel for Caritas.

According to the account given by Caritas, the termination notice was provoked by a series of blog entries by Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, the managing director of Wadi and the driving force behind the organization. According to Caritas, Osten-Sacken is supposed to have advocated a military strike against Iran in the event that the Iranian regime could not otherwise be prevented from building a nuclear weapon. Osten-Sacken claims, on the contrary, that he precisely warned against a military intervention. What is true, however, is that the Wadi managing director has persistently condemned the rule of the mullahs in Iran and warned that the regime has long been engaged in a “war” against the West that cannot simply be ignored.

Osten-Sacken has also criticized the idea of a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and opposed calls for a boycott of Israel. According to Norbert Kieliger, the head of the “international cooperation” division of Caritas Switzerland, Osten-Sacken thereby took positions that are incompatible with continued support from the aid agency. “We reject all forms of violence,” he says. “Political partisanship puts our mission at risk.”

The Swiss division of Caritas likes to present itself as an apolitical organization, which helps refugees, feeds children, and takes a principled stand in support of the needy and disadvantaged. In reality, Osten-Sacken charges in a written response to the termination letter, Caritas is anything but neutral. Vis-à-vis Palestinian groups that deny Israel’s right to exist and justify terrorist attacks, for example, Caritas displays none of the scruples that it has shown toward Wadi. (The exchange of letters is available in German here.)

Osten-Sacken points, in particular, to the involvement of Caritas in the “Forum on Human Rights in Israel and Palestine,” a Swiss umbrella group that also includes Amnesty International, the Protestant aid agency HEKS, and several Swiss-based Palestinian organizations. Officially, the “Forum” pursues strictly humanitarian aims. In reality, however, the aims are eminently political. Thus, a core item on its agenda is the “right of return”: namely, of Palestinians whose ancestors were expelled from their homes sixty years ago. In light of demographic developments in the meanwhile, what in theory may appear a just demand would in practice represent the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

The most important local partner of the Swiss “Forum” is the Palestinian organization Badil, which also receives financing from the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs. Watchdog groups sympathetic to Israel, like the NGO-Monitor, accuse Badil of harboring thinly-veiled extremist tendencies. On their account, Badil has defended suicide bombings and demanded a complete boycott of Israel — a boycott that is supposed to extend even to cultural exchanges. EU states have thus declined to work with Badil.

Up to now, Caritas has not taken any official position on calls for a boycott of Israel. But in light of the historical precedent represented by the “Don’t Buy from Jews” slogan, this silence is itself a kind of statement. Officially, Caritas — like most NGOs — condemns all forms of violence. But — as in the case of Colombia and the FARC — in practice the NGOs place a democratically-elected Israeli government on the same level as terrorist organizations. And when it is a mater of condemning concrete human rights violations, it is always the western-oriented governments that get pilloried.

Although Caritas calls for dialogue as the solution to armed conflicts, the termination letter to Wadi was dispatched without any prior notice. In its response, the Wadi board writes that it was prepared to send a representative to Lucerne to discuss the matter. “We are not avoiding dialogue with Wadi,” Norbert Kieliger of Caritas says. “We are conducting the discussion in writing.” Unfortunately, however, not before but after announcing the termination of the funding for the successful project: a project that, in any case, has nothing whatsoever to do with Israel.

The above article originally appeared in German here in the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.