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March 24, 2010

Church coalition soldiers on after feds pulled its funding

Mirko Petricevic

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More than three months have passed since the federal government announced it wouldn't grant $7 million in international aid funding to KAIROS, the coalition created by about a dozen of Canada's largest churches.

Since then, the coalition has received both blessings and curses from across the country.

“Hate mail” regularly makes its way to KAIROS’s offices in Toronto and Ottawa, said Mary Corkery, the coalition’s executive director.

But calls and letters of support are also pouring in, she said.

“More than we would ever have imagined, an outpouring of support from across the country,” she said in a telephone interview this week.

Since the defunding decision hit the news in early December, Corkery said KAIROS has received calls and letters of support from across Canada and, internationally, from Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the World Council of Churches.

The coalition now has “hundreds” of new donors, Corkery added.

Of course, it’s not all rosy.

“Nothing is going to replace that $7 million ... in the foreseeable future,” she said.

•••

Kairos, the ancient Greek word, describes a God-given time of crisis, choice and opportunity to make positive changes.

KAIROS, the coalition, might not be a household name. But the churches and religious groups comprising its membership form a wide swath of the Canadian religious landscape.

KAIROS was created in 2001 by mainline churches including Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, Mennonite, Christian Reformed and others.

Each member — such as the Anglican Church of Canada’s Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund — runs its own development and aid projects.

But they also help pay for KAIROS’s various projects.

According to its website, “KAIROS effects social change through advocacy, education and research programs” in the fields of economic and ecological justice, human rights, resource extraction (such as mining and oil drilling), indigenous peoples and sustainable livelihoods.

The federal government has been funding aid projects by KAIROS or its founding agencies, largely through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), for more than three decades.

In 2008, funding from CIDA represented about 40 per cent of KAIROS’s $4 million budget.

Last year, the coalition was asking CIDA for $7 million over five years.

CIDA’s decision to “defund” KAIROS affects 21 projects, including support for Palestinians living in the West Bank, for a women’s human rights organization in Latin America and for a legal education program in Congo which serves women who have been raped during war.

After the defunding announcement, KAIROS’s 21 staff members considered taking a 10 per cent pay cut. But the United Church of Canada provided a special grant that will prevent wage rollbacks for the time being.

As for its overseas projects, “we’re about to send a small contribution to all of them,” Corkery said. “It’s a token, but it’s something to say ‘we’re there.’ ”

KAIROS supporters argue CIDA withheld funds because the coalition’s activism — whether it’s criticizing Alberta’s oils sands projects or speaking out for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation — clashes with the federal government’s political leanings.

In January, leaders of the churches and organizations that comprise KAIROS sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking him for a meeting to clarify why the coalition’s funding application was denied.

So far, federal cabinet ministers have given two different reasons.

Corkery said Bev Oda, minister of international co-operation which is responsible for CIDA, told KAIROS staff that their projects didn’t fit with the government’s three international aid priorities of increasing food security, securing the future of children and youth, and stimulating sustainable economic growth.

And Jason Kenney, federal immigration minister, told an audience at an anti-Semitism conference in Jerusalem in mid-December, “We have articulated and implemented a zero tolerance approach to anti-Semitism.

“What does this mean?” Kenney asked. “It means that we eliminated the government funding relationship with organizations like, for example, the Canadian Arab Federation ... We have defunded organizations, most recently like KAIROS, who are taking a leadership role in the boycott (against Israeli).”

In a subsequent letter to the Toronto Star, Kenney denied calling KAIROS an anti-Semitic organization.

The Canadian Jewish Congress hasn’t issued any statements on the CIDA’s defunding of KAIROS, said Bernie Farber, the Jewish advocacy group’s chief executive officer.

But it does have positions on what constitutes anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism changes from time to time, Farber said.

In the past few decades the “classical” forms of anti-Semitism expressed itself in neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, he said.

But in the 21st century, Farber said, anti-Semitism is also present in extremely harsh criticism of Israel.

“Those that would deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, who would demonize the Jewish state to a point well beyond how any other democratic state is regarded, that then falls into what we would call 21st century anti-Semitism,” Farber said.

For example, people participating in Israel Apartheid Week, held annually on more than half a dozen university campuses in Canada, want to make the point “the Jewish state is a racist state. It is a form of demonization,” Farber said.

But not all criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Semitic, he added.

“Short of demonizing Israel, Israeli policy is open to the same kind of scrutiny and criticism as is any policy in any other democratic state on Earth,” he said. “Criticism is absolutely legitimate.”

Corkery argues that KAIROS’s actions in support of Palestinians isn’t anti-Semitic.

“KAIROS has always supported Israel, the State of Israel, and Israel’s right to live in peace and security,” she said. “We also support the right of the Palestinian people to have a state and live in peace and security.”

In response to a call by Palestinians for boycotts and sanctions against Israel, and divestment from companies doing businesses in Israel, KAIROS said it didn’t support a general boycott of Israeli products or the imposing of sanctions on Israel.

KAIROS did agree to consider helping its members identify Canadian companies doing business in Israel or the West Bank that are “contributing directly or indirectly to violence, occupation or other human rights abuses in the region.”

The coalition also said it would consider helping members put forth shareholder proposals designed to curb those companies’ business in the region.

Divestment from companies, KAIROS suggests, should only be used as a last resort after engaging senior company executives in discussions.

Churches have long had policies to screen out investments in companies that produce military equipment or are suspected of human rights violations, Corkery said.

“It’s a peaceful way of calling for change,” she said. “None of our policies are unique to Israel.”

Sara Saber-Freedman, executive vice-president of the Canada-Israel Committee, said anti-Semitism isn’t the real issue in the debate over KAIROS funding.

“I think that argument is a red herring,” Saber-Freedman said in an interview this week. “I think it distracts away from the core issue, which is really how KAIROS seems to have been spending foreign aid dollars.”

KAIROS is free to hold political opinions and make arguments, Saber-Freedman said.

“(But) we think that most Canadians want their international development money to be spent on things like digging wells and building schools, and not on doing political advocacy,” she said.

Corkery argues that identifying and raising awareness of the root causes of poverty is squarely within the realm of development work.

“There would be no integrity to our putting on Band-Aids over and over and over again if we didn’t listen to the people with whom we are collaborating to try to help them create change,” she said.

And if, as critics of the federal government suggest, defunding was designed to shut the window of opportunity on KAIROS, it doesn’t seem to be working.

“It has stirred the pot everywhere,” Corkery said. “People are talking in their churches, in their communities, in their political organizations ... Now that it’s stirred, the discussion is growing, not lessening.”

KW Record, March 20, 2010

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