Islamist charity aims to be Pakistanis' salvation
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Lime green dresses for girls spill out of the sack of food, supplies and shoes -- a gift from the Islamist charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) to help flood victims celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid this month.
Blacklisted by the U.N. over its links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the 2008 attack on Mumbai, the JuD has been quick to help people hit by Pakistan's floods, raising fears among U.S. officials that Islamists use aid to gain recruits.
But it does not have the capacity to establish a big presence -- the devastation was so vast that roads were cut and the only means of transport is helicopter -- so JuD officials say they are trying to make up for this by other, thoughtful, means.
"We don't have the resources to meet their demands or get their houses rebuilt or give compensation for their crops," said Yahya Mujahid, a JuD spokesman, inside the group's headquarters in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
"So this idea came up ... let's give them this package so that they can forget their problems for at least one day."
This was the first time since the Mumbai attacks a foreign reporter had been allowed into the JuD compound and Mujahid was keen to stress that the Sunni Islamist charity -- which denies links to the LeT -- wanted to help rather than win recruits.
"Neither religion, nor politics is an issue for us," he said and the group gave help to whoever needed it, including Shi'ites, Hindus and Christians. "Our main task is to help humanity."
The Pakistani government has been criticized for its sluggish response to the flood disaster that has affected more than 20 million people and devastated crops and livelihoods.
For a related factbox on JuD, click
WELCOMED BY SHI'ITES
Nearly 200 miles to the south, some volunteers were putting that philosophy into action, helping Shi'ites stranded by the floods in the village of Kalar Wali, in south Punjab.
Here the road trailed off into a vast lake of floodwater, and the village was accessible only by boat. A single tent was pitched at the roadside, a tiny operation compared to the vast relief camps set up by the army and the government.
The Eid sacks were labeled from the Falah-e-Insaniyat -- the name used in public by the JuD since its blacklisting.
"They are meant to express our goodwill. We are trying to share the celebration with these people," said Abdul Ghafar, who was in charge of relief operations in the district.
A black dinghy, equipped with what looked like army-issue lifejackets on the floor, ferried visitors to the stranded Shi'ite village where the local elder was waiting on the shore.
Sayed Raiz Hussain's family for generations had taken care of the villagers' welfare and when the floods came, he told them to stay, promising food and shelter. But after 15 days his stocks dwindled and he phoned the local politician to appeal for help.
"He said, 'I don't have any way to reach you people. I'll drop some food at the road and you will have to make your own arrangements to collect it'," said Hussain, echoing complaints made across Pakistan about politicians' failure in the floods.
"The first people to come here were the Falah-e-Insaniyat. Thanks to these men, we were given food in a very respectable manner. They came to our homes to see what we needed."
"We are lucky they came," said villager Alamdar Hussain. "They are supporting us when no one else does."
The mosque was flying the black Shi'ite flag and Hussain said the JuD gave no hint of questioning their faith. "They never talked about religion," he said.
The Eid packages, with lentils, sugar, flour, rice, tea, pulses, soap and spices, powdered milk and dates, also included
3,000 rupees ($35) per family so elders could follow an Eid tradition of giving money to children.
"In our religion, if you help someone, you should not expect anything back," said Mujahid.
TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
But analysts say the JuD has a longer-term aim of winning public support by being seen as above the political fray and helping all Pakistanis.
The JuD and LeT are also seen as two sides of the same coin.
Both sprang out of the same organization which was first founded to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and both share the same religious views of the minority "Ahl-e-Hadith" sect, which says it emulates the original ways of the Prophet Mohammad.
"So donations given to fund the JuD's charitable work can easily be spent on militant activities," said Stephen Tankel, a U.S.-based analyst who has written a book on the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The LeT, once nurtured by Pakistan to fight in Kashmir, still focuses largely on India, but it has also been linked to attempted or actual attacks in the west and Afghanistan.
It is officially banned in Pakistan, but the JuD operates openly from its headquarters in the center of Lahore.
Its compound houses a mosque, a library, and a warehouse -- now packed with food supplies, towels and utensils, waiting to be trucked out to flood victims. The JuD had similar warehouses in every province and some 5,500 volunteers, said Mujahid.
One of the issues in organizing flood relief is that goods meant for the victims might be pilfered by corrupt officials.
With many of the goods coming from donations, Mujahid pointed to high-quality blankets to be distributed to families in the winter, proof, he said, that donors trusted the JuD to make sure they would go to the people who needed them when the time came.
(Editing by Zeeshan Haider and Miral Fahmy)
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