OTTAWA - The Harper government's decision to axe funding for a Christian aid organization has cast a pall over foreign aid groups who fear they'll be cut off and their reputations smeared if they dare to contradict Conservative policy.
Groups involved in aid work in the Middle East are particularly fearful, given that the government appears to have expanded the definition of anti-Semitism to include any criticism of Israel.
"It is a desperate tragedy if, in order to deliver resources to partners abroad, you have to somehow dance . . . to some sort of political tune," said Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.
"It is no way to run an aid program."
The council, an umbrella group of about 100 Canadian international development organizations, came out swinging Monday against the government's decision to cut off funding to KAIROS.
KAIROS is a social justice group made up of 11 Christian churches and faith-based organizations, including the United, Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian and Mennonite churches. For 35 years, it has received federal funding to help finance projects abroad aimed at combatting human rights abuses and promoting environmental sustainability.
Last month, the group's pitch for $7 million over four years was turned down flat, even though the government had praised the group's effectiveness in an evaluation just last February. The Canadian International Development Agency initially informed KAIROS that it no longer fit with CIDA's priorities of providing food security and helping youth.
But then last week Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told a conference in Jerusalem that KAIROS's funding was axed as part of a government effort to crack down on anti-Semitism. He accused the group of having played "a leadership role" in the campaign for a boycott of Israel.
KAIROS executive director Mary Corkery said the group has been critical at times of Israel's human rights record, as it has been of other countries. But it has never joined the call for a boycott or for shareholders to divest from corporations that do business in Israel and it has always supported Israel's right to live in peace and security.
But even if it had led the charge for a boycott, Corkery said that wouldn't justify Kenney labelling KAIROS as anti-Semitic and lumping it in with terrorists, fanatics and despots bent on another Holocaust, as he did in his Jerusalem speech.
"This is poison," she said.
Corkery said some other foreign aid groups, particularly those dependent on CIDA for their survival, have told her they won't utter a syllable about the Middle East for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic.
United Church spokesman Bruce Gregersen said Kenney has effectively labelled all the churches involved in KAIROS as anti-Semitic as well.
"What he's using is a definition that suggests that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic," Gregersen said, adding that not even Israel applies such a debate-stifling standard.
Kenney was unavailable for comment.
KAIROS, which receives funding from the churches, will survive without government financing, although it will have to cut back planned projects.
But Gregersen said what's happened to KAIROS has sent a message to other development agencies, particularly those who rely solely on CIDA for their funding.
"For them . . . the question will be, well, we dare not speak out in any way that contradicts government policy."
Barr said the message goes well beyond criticism of Israel. He noted that some aid agencies have spoken out against things like unaccountable mining operations, Alberta's oil sands or Canada's free trade deal with Colombia - often contrary to official government policy.
"If you say any of those things, are you putting yourself at mortal peril as an aid provider in Canada? It would appear, yes, you are."
In 20 years of work in the foreign aid field, Barr said he's never seen such blatant politicization of the standard by which funding decisions are made.
All three opposition parties are now pressuring the government to reverse the decision to cut KAIROS's funding.