Christian charity prevented from providing aid to Covid-affected countries

17 August 2020

Today, 17 August, a Christian UK charity is making an urgent application to have significant funds released by police so that it can send vital humanitarian aid to countries effected by Covid-19.

Assyrian Church of East Relief (ACERO), a charity dedicated to supporting disaster relief across the world, will make the urgent application supported by the Christian Legal Centre at Westminster Magistrates Court today, Monday 17 August.

Accounts have been frozen after a judge ruled in October 2019 that the police should be allowed to scrutinise a tenuous allegation that the charity had financed Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, by alleging that ransom money had been paid for the release of 223 Christian hostages, including women and children.

However, the evidence submitted shows that the charity had in fact sent aid to help rehabilitate house-released Christian Assyrian hostages, who had experienced “inordinate psychological trauma” after being imprisoned by ISIS and then released between 2015 and 2016.

The police allegations are primarily based on one media report from 2016. They allege ransom money was sent to ISIS in Syria to free the hostages and in so doing had helped fund the terrorist movement.

Lawyers will argue that there is no longer any reason to suspect that the funds were or will be used for terrorist financing, and that it is “unconscionable to prevent them any longer from being put to humanitarian use.”

A police investigation launched in 2018, led to ACERO’s bank accounts being frozen without any reason being provided. In addition, the charity’s UK based secretary Andy Darmoo’s home and business premises were raided by the police. The police have not disclosed the discovery of any incriminating evidence, some two years on.

The charity is calling for the funds to be released immediately as they are urgently needed to support victims of the Beirut explosion and for a Covid-19 relief project in Armenia.

Traumatised prisoners

In 2016, both the House of Commons and the US State Department determined that Assyrian Christians were being subjected to genocide at the hands of ISIS.

In February 2015, 223 members of the Christian Assyrian church, one of the earliest Christian churches, were captured by ISIS and several were brutally beheaded in public. The usual pattern after kidnap was that money would be demanded for the release of hostages, this was considered justified as it was part of the jizya (a tax on non-Muslims that live in Muslim countries) that Christians had to pay.

223 traumatised prisoners were subsequently released after pressure from church and tribal leaders, which is how these regions generally work.

One media report of many on the hostage situation claimed that members of the Assyrian diaspora across the world were paying ransom fees, which is not illegal, to save the lives of the hostages. This is not illegal in Australia, Canada and Germany, however it is in the UK.

The article mentioned that ACERO’s secretary, Andy Darmoo, was aware of the number of hostages held by ISIS but significantly did not state that he was fundraising for their release.

Despite this, UK police later justified seeking a freezing order on ACERO’s bank account and raiding Mr Darmoo’s home and business premises, by falsely alleging that the article “names Andy Darmoo as fundraising for this effort”, when it does not.

Police suspicions had been raised after ACERO’s accounts were submitted to the Charity Commission in 2018 and an entry for £147,689 was referenced for ‘Iraq hostages.’

Mr Darmoo insists that the money was referenced for hostages who had been released from captivity and were now living in Iraq, as a condition of their release was that they leave the country (Syria) immediately.

This was verified by two professional accountants overseeing the charities’ finances, who when questioned by police stated that “they understood the money was earmarked for the rehabilitation of freed hostages and not ransom.”

In court on Monday, Dr Martin Parsons, international expert on Christian and Islamic relations, will give evidence that if there had been any suggestion on the part of Assyrian Church leaders that they would not pay jizya, or any other sum of money demanded from the Assyrian Christians who Islamic State had seized, would almost certainly have led to the execution of at least the Christian men among these hostages and either enslavement for sexual purposes or execution of the female Christian hostages. Therefore, Church leaders had to at least ‘play along’ with Islamic state in public, in order to save lives.

Police raid

On 15 August 2018, however, a warrant was issued by DJ Emma Arbuthnot, sitting at Westminster Magistrates Court under s 1(1) schedule 5 Terrorism Act 2000.

The following day, Mr Darmoo’s home was raided by Police who rummaged through his belongings and questioned him on his Christian faith. He was even asked if he prayed as there was a cross and a Bible on display in his house.

Email evidence was seized from Mr Darmoo’s house which made clear that the money was specifically sent for medicine and clothing for the freed hostages.

Strikingly, this evidence was not disclosed in the police’s subsequent application for a freezing order on the charities’ funds in October 2019.

During the hearing, the judge approved a one year freezing order on ACERO’s accounts as the police sought an extended period to assess the movement of the charity’s’ money, including its end destination.

Since the order was approved last October no further allegations have been made by the police against Mr Darmoo or ACERO.

‘Chilling experience’

Mr Darmoo, who describes the police raid on his home as ‘chilling and without justification’, said: “The investigation and the manner in which it was carried out is still causing huge problems for me personally and for the important work of the charity as a whole.

“The evidence makes clear that none of our funds have been sent to Islamic terrorists. In court we are not only seeking justice, but an important ruling that will allow us to use these funds to support people in desperate need, especially in Beirut, Armenia.”

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “To allege, with so little evidence, that a Christian charity was funding Islamic terrorism when it was in fact supporting the rehabilitation of traumatised prisoners of ISIS is very concerning.

“Mr Darmoo’s home was raided, his bank account was frozen and the charity has been unable to send relief to other urgent humanitarian projects for over two years.

“This cannot be right. We call for the funds to be released immediately.”

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