London (CNSNews.com) -A British Islamic group engaged in recruiting fighters for armed struggles abroad -- and whose leaders have voiced public backing for terrorism -- has become the first such organization to lose its charitable status.
The London-based Muslim Cultural Society will no longer be able to call itself a charity or raise tax-free funds, said the body overseeing charities in the country.
The Charities Commission said the society had been engaged in potentially "unlawful" activities, which had nothing to do with its declared aims as a "cultural" entity.
The society and its chairman, Anjem Choudary, have confirmed raising funds and recruiting fighters for "holy wars" (jihad) in places like Chechnya, Kashmir, Bosnia and Afghanistan, but they argue those volunteers are not fighting against British citizens.
Its trustee, former Saudi national Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, also serves as judge of Britain's leading Islamic law court, and he heads an organization called Al-Muhajiroun ("The Emigrants").
As judge of the Shari'a Court of the UK, Bakri has issued some controversial religious edicts (fatwas), including one last November condemning an American playwright to death for a play depicting Jesus as a homosexual, and another in December ruling that Muslims everywhere may legitimately attack Russian government and military targets because of the Chechnya conflict.
Wearing his Al-Muhajiroun hat, Bakri has issued statements supportive of Islamist terrorism, including the 1998 bombing of American embassies in East Africa and Hamas suicide bombings in Israel. In interviews with CNSNews.com he has openly expressed sympathy with Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terror leader and prime suspect in the U.S. embassy bombings.
In a letter to the society, the Charities Commission wrote: "We are clear that the society's involvement in promulgating and being associated with the statement issued from the Shari'a Court of the UK, which included the charity's registration number, are activities beyond the scope of the society's objectives and powers.
"Indeed any involvement would be inappropriate for a charity given that by implication it condones an incitement to what is arguably an unlawful act, namely the fatwa concerning [playwright] Terence McNally."
Bakri likened the decision to a declaration of war by the authorities, and warned that such actions "send out the wrong signals to Muslims in the country.
"We are only doing our duty as good Muslims. This sort of action provokes an atmosphere of distrust, which is not good for Muslims and not good for the British public. It gives the impression that the British Government is an enemy. That sort of attitude could lead some people to carry out violent acts."
Choudary said the society's work would continue despite the loss of charitable status.
In December, Al-Muhajiroun issued a statement in response to plans to introduce new anti-terrorism legislation in Britain. It predicted that its leaders would be targeted.
"Muslim activists working to overthrow the corrupted regimes in Muslim countries and to liberate Muslim land occupied by foreign forces are now to be the target of a witch hunt by the British government in order to secure its economic, military and political interests in those countries, at the expense of their interests and those of other Muslims who support this cause," the statement said.
Al-Muhajiroun warned of the growth of underground Islamic groups if legal bodies were targeted, and it accused the government of declaring "war against Muslims worldwide" by siding against Iraq and with Israel.
Islamist groups have long used the cover of charitable work to pursue their goals.
Mideast political observers agree that the Palestinian group Hamas achieved its remarkable growth in popularity through its network of schools, clinics and other charitable institutions, as did the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Similar activity is allegedly underway in the United States. Steven Emerson, an investigative journalist who has drawn the ire of U.S. Muslims over his claims, says there are some 30 organizations in the U.S. today who are fronts for Mideast terror groups like Hamas and Hizballah.
Addressing a meeting of the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals in Virginia last October, Emerson said the U.S. "has been a paradise to them in terms of their freedom, their maneuverability, their ability to raise funds, to recruit new members, politically disseminate their ideology, all of which is 'legal' in the American system."
Despite an executive order signed by President Clinton in 1995 freezing the assets of 14 terrorist groups, Emerson said, these "front" organizations continued to operate.
"Hamas or Hizballah and other terrorist groups don't register their names in Delaware
under Hamas, and they don't file a tax return under Hamas ... naming the front groups in the United States I think is one of the major requirements for an aggressive anti-terrorist program."