It shouldn’t have been terribly surprising when an employee of the Christian charity World Vision was charged with funneling money to terrorists. The organization has been on a crusade against Israel for decades.
World Vision is the largest and most respected Christian humanitarian organization in the world. In homes and churches across the U.S., it is widely known for assisting children and families in need. Their model of encouraging families in the U.S. to sponsor needy children in an impoverished or war-torn country has helped lift millions out of poverty, providing education and hope for the future.
But World Vision’s reputation has now been tarnished by the accusation that one of their leaders was funneling millions of dollars to the terrorist organization, Hamas. The charges are very serious. Mohammad el-Halabi, World Vision’s manager for Gaza, stands accused of funneling as much as $43 million to Hamas over 10 years. Food intended for families and children went to feed Hamas fighters training to attack Israel. Farm equipment was diverted to build terror tunnels.
World Vision’s complicated internal structure has been used in the past to deflect criticism by allowing different national offices to pass blame. But because the accusations include funneling money to terrorists, that structure has magnified World Vision’s problems. Currently, World Vision Australia, World Vision Germany, and others organizations have suspended their support for the work of World Vision in Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza. Unsurprisingly, the liability associated with financing terrorism has led to tense questioning from governments as well as banks and other financial institutions.
World Vision has responded by questioning the charges, claiming that the entire budget for Gaza over the last ten years is just $22.5 million. They also claim to be impartial and neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rejecting any involvement in political activities. While this claim may be true in other conflict zones where World Vision operates, it is not true in regard to Israel. Not only does World Vision have a long history of antagonism toward the Jewish state, it has done more to undermine Christian support for Israel than any other organization.
In the late spring of 1979, a group of influential Christian leaders, including World Vision’s editor-in-chief Paul Rees, met at LaGrange, Illinois for a conference entitled “Human Rights and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.” The conference billed itself as an effort to explore approaches to reconciliation in the Middle East. Instead, it became a rallying cry for anti-Zionists and PLO sympathizers.
The conference ended with the drafting of what would be called the LaGrange Declaration. Published in Sojourners magazine, it was signed by over 5,000 Christian leaders. The declaration states in part, “We are anguished by the fact that countless Christians believe that the Bible gives to the modern State of Israel a divine right to lands inhabited by Palestinian people, and divine sanction to the State of Israel’s policy of territorial acquisition.”
Catholic priest George Higgins wrote a response in the Texas Catholic Herald, which read in part, “Given the biased design of the conference, it is no wonder that it came out with a statement sounding more like Palestinian Liberation Organization propaganda than a serious attempt to challenge the Christian conscience.”
Indeed, the declaration directly challenged what would eventually become commonly known as Christian Zionism. It was primarily directed toward fellow Christians who believe that the universal message of Jesus did not nullify the particular promises God made to Israel. The LaGrange Declaration also affirmed the anti-Israel position taken by many Christians in the Middle East, especially Palestinians. As the late Dr. Geries Kouhry, director of the World Vision partner organization Al-Liqa, said in an interview for the book Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel, “Christian Zionists are our ﬁrst enemy. They are more dangerous to Palestinian Christians than the Israeli occupiers.” This hatred of Christian Zionism permeated World Vision and provided the foundation for its antagonism towards Israel.
In 1982, World Vision President Stanley Mooneyham’s trip to Lebanon provided the backdrop for a public display of this antagonism. Mooneyham worked to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugee camps near Tyre and Sidon in south Lebanon during the First Lebanon War. After weeks of negotiations with Israel and even an appeal to President Ronald Reagan, the Israelis finally allowed Mooneyham to bring in supplies. He described what he saw to the readers of World Vision’s magazine:
There is no Ein-el-Hilweh anymore. Never before have I seen such destruction, not even in Managua, the earthquake-stricken capital of Nicaragua. If the world’s war makers and peacemakers want to see what the saturation bombing looks like, they should look here. Israel, the country skilled in making the desert blossom like a rose, knows also how to turn rose into desert….The sheer magnitude of this one visible piece of the Israeli war machine is incredible. David seems determined to become Goliath.
However, Mooneyham refused to mention the fact that the PLO used these refugee camps as bases to attack Israelis, as well as Christians in south Lebanon and northern Israel. The PLO had that year been driven from Jordan after they failed to overthrow King Hussein. Many of its fighters moved to Palestinian refugee camps in south Lebanon. From these camps, fighters were trained and sent to perform terrorist operations in northern Israel. They had no problem with using women and children as human shields against Israeli retaliation.
The August and September 1982 issues of World Vision Magazine reported the war in a biased, heavy-handed fashion, characterizing the PLO as a victim of Israeli aggression fueled by Christian Zionist ideology—not a terrorist organization bent on destroying Israel by violent means. For his part, Mooneyham went so far as to compare the Israelis to Nazi Germany. “There are fewer refugees here this Sunday morning,” he wrote, “for the section many of them come from has been sealed off in one of the periodic and unpredictable searches for members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The sweep method used is ironically reminiscent of Warsaw.”
World Vision lost several major donors as a result of this statement and others. Mooneyham was forced to resign. In spite of this, World Vision did not significantly change its position on Israel and Christian Zionism. Instead, World Vision institutionalized its antagonistic position. In 1985, U.S. Senator and World Vision board member Mark Hatfield released his legislative director, Tom Getman, to join World Vision as its director of government relations. Getman headed up World Vision’s newly established Washington office. By 1985, the organization’s budget had grown to nearly $200 million and the group became a major recipient of grants from the U.S. government.
Prior to joining World Vision, Getman and Hatfield were already involved in several initiatives opposed to Christian support for Israel. Hatfield’s former chief of staff, Wes Michaelson, had drafted the LaGrange Declaration, and Hatfield himself was a signer.
Getman flourished in Washington, spreading his antagonism towards Israel wherever he went. Using the relationships he developed over his years of work with Sen. Hatfield, Getman went head-to-head with the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill. It was through Getman’s legislative muscle and World Vision President Bob Seiple’s efforts that, in 1992, President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State Jim Baker were able to kill a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel.
In a letter to Congress, World Vision President Bill Seiple followed Mooneyham in singling out Israel and ignoring Palestinian aggression. Seiple wrote,
The mother of our staff photographer was shot and killed by a single sniper’s bullet from a military helicopter while kneeling over her wounded son outside a mosque where they had been worshiping. A 14-year-old World Vision-sponsored child was shot in the face and beaten for one hour by 16 soldiers near the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem. Several families of World Vision children have had their houses blown up, bulldozed, or attacked in the middle of the night.
I want to urge you to do whatever is within your power to encourage our Israeli friends to move expeditiously to a peace settlement, to cease the building of settlements in the illegally occupied Territories, and to reach out to the suffering people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Long-term stability in the Middle East depends upon it. Further, I want to go on record in the strongest possible terms, given the increasing humanitarian demands upon our fragile foreign assistance budget, that you support the President and Secretary of State in their refusal to provide the $10 billion loan guarantees while the Israelis continue to expand settlements.
Neither Seiple nor Bill Warnock, his Director in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza (JWBG)—indeed no World Vision USA official—mentioned that it was common for Palestinian terrorists to use the homes of Christians to launch rockets, mortars, and sniper attacks against Israel, and would do so knowing that the retaliation from Israel would destroy Christian homes.
In 1997, Getman took over as the JWBG director. Under his leadership, World Vision’s work in the Holy Land became increasingly anti-Israel. It was not uncommon for Getman to travel the world promoting World Vision, as well as the work of Sabeel, one of the most aggressive anti-Israel and anti-Zionist Palestinian Christian organization in the region.
Sabeel promotes “Palestinian liberation theology,” which tends to justify Palestinian nationalism as a theological construct by regularly using themes from the New Testament to demonize Israel and Christians that support Israel. In his 2001 Easter message, Sabeel founder and Getman’s travel partner Naim Ateek said, “It seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. Palestinian men, women, and children are being crucified. Palestine has become one huge Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.”
Under Getman’s leadership, World Vision also began to drift away from its evangelical roots, even as it began accepting more and more money from the U.S. government and expanded into a global organization. For Getman, broadening the definition of what it meant to be “evangelical” and moving away from what he has called a narrow focus on evangelism was helpful to the organization’s growth.
In part, moving away from evangelism meant that World Vision could more easily raise money from corporations and foundations averse to funding religious organizations. It also meant that World Vision could provide humanitarian assistance in countries that prohibit Christian evangelism, particularly those in the Middle East.
While this helped grow the organization and expand its bottom line, the expansion into Arab countries paved the way for even more anti-Israel activities. In an interview with Stephen Sizer, an Anglican vicar who once posted a Facebook link claiming Israel was responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks, Getman described his relationship with the leadership of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and his hopes for the Obama administration:
We have friends…inside the White House, we have friends in the Senate like people in this room today, who are intent on putting steel in the spine so Obama can follow through on what he has said, not only the words but to do. Like our friends Nasrallah [Hezbollah’s political leader] and Sheik Fedlallah [Hezbollah’s spiritual leader] and many others in the Middle East have said to us, the problem with you Christians is you don’t do what’s in the book. So we are trying to encourage Christians within the administration or active Jews within the administration to really stand up and let Obama be Obama in terms of what his heart says in terms of dialogue.
Getman’s replacement as national director for JWBG picked up where he left off. Dan Simmons came to World Vision in 2001 after many years of activism on behalf of the Palestinians. Another signatory of the LaGrange Declaration, Simmons went on his first trip to the Middle East in 1980 at the invitation of Don Wagner, then head of the Palestinian Human Rights Campaign. After a three-week trip, Simmons said he came back “radicalized.”
He quickly threw himself into advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians. He joined Mercy Corps, one of the first organizations to bring Christian leaders on pro-Palestinian tours of the Holy Land, as the head of its Middle East desk. Simmons’ tenure as national director lasted only three years. During his leadership, the Second Intifada raged throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Consistent with his predecessors, Simmons never mentioned the Jewish victims of Palestinian terrorism. Instead, he spoke endlessly of Palestinian suffering.
During this time, World Vision was hit with a scandal that seemed to presage the revelations of el-Halabi’s terrorist connections. In 2004, just as Simmons was transitioning out of World Vision JWBG and Charles Clayton, former World Vision UK executive director, was moving in, World Vision Australia and AusAID, the Australian government’s foreign aid agency, became partners with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a Palestinian nonprofit. This program was intended to provide vocational training and entrepreneurial opportunities for women in Gaza. But in 2012, AusAID was forced to suspend its partnership with World Vision after it was discovered that the senior director of the UAWC was also a senior member of the terrorist organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Eventually, the project was suspended.
World Vision’s national director during the investigation of UAWC was a New Zealander named Alex Snary. Snary was a former soldier who thrived in conflict zones. One of his first roles for World Vision was negotiating with Maoist rebels in Nepal. Indeed, experience in negotiating with terrorists appears to be part of the job description for NGOs working in Hamas-controlled Gaza, and Snary was uniquely equipped for the task. In 2009, he became the national director for World Vision JWBG.
World Vision promptly partnered with anti-Christian Zionist organizations in the West Bank and Jerusalem. One of them is the Bethlehem Bible College, through which World Vision funded the biannual Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. The purpose of the conference is to undermine Christian support for Israel by attacking Christian Zionism. The most recent conference in 2016 focused on confronting religious extremism. As expected, it concluded that Christian Zionists and Jewish settlers are on par with violent Muslim extremists.
It was also under the leadership of Snary that Mohammad el-Halabi became manager of World Vision’s Gaza program. According to the case presented by the Israeli police, el-Halabi specifically infiltrated World Vision in 2005 in order to funnel resources to Hamas. As he moved up World Vision’s chain of command, he was placed under increasingly less oversight and given increasingly more money to spend. If the charges against el-Halabi stick, then much of the aid and supplies that were supposedly for agricultural purposes were diverted. Piping for irrigation was turned into rockets. Digging equipment and building material intended for the reconstruction of homes destroyed in battles with Israel were used to dig tunnels.
World Vision’s failure to identify this corruption stems from three sources: Willingness to overlook terrorist atrocities, institutional antagonism toward Israel, and hostility towards Christian Zionism.
Mooneyham, Getman, Simmons, and Snary never seemed to be overly bothered by Palestinian terrorist organizations’ role in the conflict with Israel. Mooneyham’s willingness to compare Israeli soldiers with Nazis, Getman’s friendship with Hezbollah leaders, and Snary’s repetition of Hamas talking points shows the depth of World Vision’s institutional distaste for Israel and the absence of critical voices within its leadership.
Similarly, World Vision’s antagonism towards Christian Zionism made it impossible for the organization to hire someone who might offer a different perspective. Quite simply, the theological foundation of World Vision explicitly rejects the view that the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is part of God’s redemptive plan for humanity. For World Vision, the return of the Jewish people to Israel is colonialism, not restoration. Unfortunately, no one in World Vision’s top leadership or any of its Middle East offices provides an internal counterbalance to its anti-Zionism. Without ideological diversity, World Vision naturally allowed itself to be used by Hamas.
World Vision is making the effort to shake off the bad image by reaching out to more Israeli groups and even meeting regularly with pro-Israel rabbis and other Israeli leaders. The new national director, David Verboom, and others in the World Vision leadership have expressed a deep desire to stick to their primary mandate to serve the poor and needy, especially children. Unfortunately, the institutional climate, both from local Arab staff and World Vision’s European branches, are in no mood to see World Vision pivot to a more balanced view. It will take visionary leadership from Verboom to make World Vision a true partner for peace.
Left unchallenged both internally and externally, World Vision’s campaign to undermine Christian support for Israel will continue to undermine and alienate many of its most loyal donors. Other organizations, like Compassion International and Samaritan’s Purse, are filling the void left by World Vision’s decision to reject evangelism and place politics above providing aid to suffering people. The crisis facing World Vision in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza provides a unique opportunity for it to drastically change how it works in the region, as well as its antagonism toward Israel and Christian Zionists. Perhaps through this crisis, World Vision will live up to its own commitment to political and theological neutrality.
Banner Photo: Bluerasberry / Wikimedia