Charities and religion: With God on their side

Faith-based groups are one of the fastest-growing elements of the voluntary sector. Sally Ramsden looks at the challenges they face in a religiously sensitive world.

One in seven charities in England and Wales has a religious core.

The combined income of these 22,000 faith-based organisations amounts to £5.12bn, with both the number and variety reflecting the diversity of modern Britain. So it comes as little surprise that, after determined support by bishops in the House of Lords, the Charities Bill retains "the advancement of religion" as one of 12 kinds of charitable purpose.

Charities and religion have always been entwined. The Christian message of "love thy neighbour" inspired tithing, alms giving, charitable endowments and, by Victorian times, many organisations working with the sick and destitute.

Charity is integral to Islam, now the fastest-growing religion in the UK. The third of the five obligatory pillars, 'zakat', requires every Muslim who can to give away 2.5 per cent of various types of asset each year. They are also encouraged to make irregular donations, or 'sadaqah', to the needy.

In Buddhism, 'dana', or generosity, is a basic virtue, with the emphasis on wanting to give as much as the giving. Equally important are the gifts of time, energy, thought, knowledge, fearlessness and the Dharma - the teachings of the Buddha - itself.

The kaleidoscope of worshippers, from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, now found across the UK has changed the landscape dramatically. This is why the Charity Commission is halfway through what Kenneth Dibble, its director of legal and charity services, calls "a massive consultation exercise" involving several thousand faith-based bodies.

"Historically, our understanding of religious charities inevitably grew out of Christianity," says Dibble. "The increase in charities of other faiths with different approaches requires us to deepen our understanding of how spiritually based organisations operate."

More than 2,000 minority faith charities are to be consulted through a series of regional seminars, with the findings released in a major report due at the end of the year.

Dibble is particularly conscious of the difficulties faced by Muslim charities in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US of 11 September 2001, exposing them to intense scrutiny from security services and the media.

"Muslim charities are doing extremely valuable work and making a very strong contribution to the charitable sector," he says. "It would be extremely unfair if the current sensitivities were allowed to jeopardise their achievements."

Crescent Relief was one charity caught in the spotlight, when Rashid Rauf was detained in Pakistan in connection with the alleged plot to blow up transatlantic airliners. Rauf's father Abdul, who helped set up Crescent Relief in Essex in 2000, was held along with another son in the UK this August. Both were released without charge, but the charity, which raised funds for victims of the Kashmir earthquake, has had its bank accounts frozen by the Charity Commission pending investigation.

"If concerns are raised we have to look at them, but it doesn't mean the organisations are automatically guilty," says Dibble. "It's not a new issue, and it's not only about Muslim charities."

In all, the commission has opened 20 inquiries into alleged links with terrorism since 1998, involving Catholic, Tamil, Sikh, Kashmiri and Muslim charities. Some remain live cases and others predate the 2001 attacks, but no direct evidence of terrorist funding has ever been found.

Based in Birmingham, Islamic Relief Worldwide is the largest Muslim charity in Europe, with an annual income of £90m. It was hit by negative publicity earlier this year when one of its UK staff, later released without charge, was detained by the Israeli authorities after the charity was accused of supporting Hamas.

The charity, which is currently raising funds for emergency aid to south Lebanon, believes its public credibility remains high. Communications officer Jamsheed Din has recently returned from Lebanon, where he witnessed the urgent need for food, water and blankets. "A lot of people put their faith in us, and not only Muslims," he says. "We're distributing emergency aid to Christians and Druze in south Lebanon, for example. We work where the need is."

Finger-pointing at Islamic charities is unfortunate, says Din, but he and his colleagues remain positive. "We've been able to clear ourselves every time and we're confident in what we do," he says. "In fact, we're more rigorous in accounting procedures than we're required to be. We have to show a clean bill of health in every way. "

Christian Aid, the official relief and development agency of 39 Protestant denominations in the UK, doesn't fight shy of sensitive issues, provided they fall within the charity's mandate "to remove the structures that keep poverty in place". Over the years, it has taken flak for its vocal stands on controversial issues such as apartheid, Palestine and climate change.

It also campaigns on trade justice, as part of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition's Drop the Debt campaign and by mobilising supporters at last year's G8 summit at Gleneagles.

So how does this radical stance fit with being a church-based organisation?

"The Bible talks of prophetic testimony, standing up, speaking out and challenging what's going on," says Dr Daleep Mukarji, director at the charity. "Our passion for the marginalised involves us in international development issues. Part of our role is to equip people to practise their Christianity. This is not something you do only at church on Sunday."

Mukarji believes Christian Aid's solid supporter base of 300,000 church volunteers gives its campaigns credibility. "Because we can mobilise large numbers of people, Gordon Brown is more likely to listen," he says.

Although church-going itself is in decline, Christian Aid is seeking to broaden its base, rebranding to bring its message to a wider audience. "Christian Aid doesn't work only with Christians," runs its new advertising campaign. "That wouldn't be very Christian, would it?"

As the official overseas aid agency of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, Cafod faces different sensitivities. For religious reasons, it is not able to fund the distribution of condoms or any organisations that do so. "But our partners must give out safe, accurate information, so they are able to say condoms prevent the spread of HIV/Aids," says a spokesperson.

Kingsway International Christian Centre is the fastest-growing church in Europe - it boasts 12,000 regular worshippers and expects to reach 25,000 in four years. Its founder and pastor, Matthew Ashimolowo, preaches the 'prosperity gospel', which promotes wealth as a reward for hard work.

Last year the pastor was ordered to pay back £200,000 after the Charity Commission found "serious misconduct and mismanagement in the administration of the charity".

Concerns included £120,000 spent on celebrating the pastor's birthday, Florida timeshares bought with a church visa card and £150,000 from collections going into his and his wife's pockets. The trustees had delegated almost all control to a pastoral board, which included the pastor and his wife and had the power to spend up to £1m at a time. Receivers were appointed, charity assets were safeguarded and a new board, structures and proper accounting procedures were put in place. However, the commission recognised that the role of the pastor as founder and figurehead had been crucial to its success, and Ashimolowo has remained at the helm. According to a commission spokesperson, "Kingsway is now flourishing".

Do we expect higher standards from those in religious organisations?

Norwood is a charity that provides culturally appropriate care for Jewish children and families in need of social support. Resources are invested in 120 different services, including those at Ravenswood, its residential village for adults and children with learning and associated disabilities.

But Norwood has recently attracted attention because Daily Express owner Richard Desmond is the charity's new president. The appointment of a man with a history of publishing pornography caused controversy. In 2004 he gave £2m to Norwood, but some wondered whether he was trying to buy respectability; others said his legally made money was as good as anyone else's.Norma Brier, chief executive of Norwood, says: "I am delighted to be working with Richard, whose energy and commitment are infectious."

The Windhorse Trust, a Buddhist charity based in Cambridge, offers a positive example of how values can be expressed consistently in charitable work. The trust started 25 years ago as a humble market and now employs 225 staff, half of them in a chain of 13 ethically trading Evolution shops and the rest in a sister wholesale business. Each year, about half the profits are given to a mixture of Buddhist and non-Buddhist projects at home and abroad - the other half is ploughed back into the business.

In the Cambridge warehouse, there is a large stupa with smaller images and shrines scattered around. Puja, a Buddhist ritual, is performed regularly, and staff teams can start the day with chanting. There is also a meditation room, but one major difference in the way business is conducted is invisible: rather than receiving a salary, most of the staff have a 'support package' that includes a spending allowance of £43 a week after basic needs, such as housing and food, have been met. Others choose to take much lower pay than they'd earn elsewhere.

Ratnaprabha, a Buddhist teacher and writer who used to be chair of the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, whose premises were bought by Windhorse, says: "We operate on the basis of right livelihood, finding a way to work that enables us to be full-time Buddhists without depending on others, as monks traditionally did. We want to make sure our impact on the world is positive and in tune with Buddhist precepts. Giving and honesty are so much part of our practice that ethical trade was the obvious route to take."

So do religion and charity make a good mix? Dibble of the Charity Commission has no doubts. "Charities often spring out of religious beliefs, and many remain a bedrock of building faith and social capital," he says. "They are important vehicles for bringing people together for the common good."

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