The Islamic Shia Assembly of Canada has operated in the Toronto area for more than two decades, attracting members of parliament to its events and once raising the flag at City Hall.
But documents obtained by Global News show that federal charity regulators have long had concerns about the group and what they claimed were its numerous links to Iran.
After auditing the charity, the Canada Revenue Agency alleged it was “acting as a facilitator organization to support the operational goals” of Iran’s Ahlul Bayt World Assembly (ABWA).
Based in Tehran, ABWA is close to the Iranian regime, and its secretary-general is known as the “operational father” of Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist outfit, the CRA wrote.
The auditors also made the remarkable allegation that the Canadian charity may have been established “to facilitate the spread of the Iranian revolutionary ideology in Canada.”
The CRA has revoked the group’s charity status. But the charity denies the allegations and the dispute is now before the Federal Court.
In its court appeal, filed late last year, the group wrote that the CRA had accused it of “dangerous ties with a foreign organization,” and threatening “to start a revolution in Canada.”
No date has been set for the court hearing.
The directors of the Canadian organization could not be reached for comment, but a lawyer representing the group released a statement to Global News denying the CRA’s allegations.
“The organization denies any and all allegations made in any correspondence from the CRA in connection with the CRA’s revocation process,” the statement said.
The statement also said that in an April 23, 2018 letter, the CRA had backed away from key allegations made by the auditors, including those alleging links to ABWA.
The CRA declined to comment and would not say if it had retracted any of its allegations. But it released 179 pages of documents detailing the audit results.
“Our analysis of the information obtained during the audit, and our own supplementary research, indicates that the organization, in whole or in part, was established to support the operational goals of ABWA in Canada,” the auditors wrote to the charity in 2016.
The CRA listed nine alleged links to ABWA, claiming the charity supported “the operational goals of ABWA,” was referred to by the ABWA news agency as “an ABWA branch” and may have been formed to spread Iranian revolutionary ideals.
ABWA interferes in the charity’s affairs, and the charity directors attended ABWA conferences, said the CRA, which noted the charity had “invited ABWA representatives to its functions,” and “reports to ABWA.” The ABWA logo appeared on the charity’s website and it “receives funding from the Cultural Centre of the Republic of Iran.”
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Those activities did not qualify as charitable under Canadian law because of ABWA’s “strong political agenda” and “direct affiliations” with the Iranian regime and Hezbollah, the auditors wrote in their letter.
The charity’s statement to Global News said no funds had been received from Iran, although it had received $500 from the Iranian embassy’s Cultural Centre. It also denied “the balance of all allegations” made by the CRA relating to ABWA.
In its statement, the charity quoted from what it said was an April 2018 letter from the CRA’s appeals department that called the evidence of links to Iran “mostly circumstantial” and “based on assumptions.”
It went on to say the evidence did not back the assertion that the charity supported the operational goals of ABWA. “As a result, we do not agree that the organization had an unstated purpose to support the operational goals of ABWA.”
Neither the CRA nor the charity responded to requests for a copy of the letter. But in a subsequent Oct. 31, 2018 letter, the CRA upheld its decision to revoke the group’s charity status.
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According to the CRA audit, ABWA is a department of the regime’s cultural wing and is closely aligned with Iran’s foreign policy of exporting revolution. ABWA’s leader, Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, developed Hezbollah’s “military structure,” while Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sits on its Supreme Council, the CRA added.
ABWA could not be reached for comment. The ABWA website claims it has offices worldwide, including in Canada. But while the CRA said the ABWA news agency has referred to the Toronto charity as its Canadian branch, the Islamic Shia Assembly of Canada refuted that.
“The fact there is an organization Ahlul Bayt World Assembly in Iran does not mean that we are a branch of it or have any direct connections with it,” the charity wrote in a letter to the CRA. “Islamic Ahlul Bayt Assembly of Canada is a totally independent organization.”
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Charity comes under scrutiny over Iran links
Initially called the Ahlul Bayt Assembly of North America when it was registered as a charity in 1994, and later the Islamic Ahlul Bayt Assembly of Canada, the charity said on its website it aimed to organize Islamic conferences, “provide a structured, umbrella support” and “present the correct image of Shia throughout Canada and the world.”
But as far back as 2008, the CRA Charities Directorate was raising concerns it was “operating as the Canadian branch of the Ahlul Bayt World Assembly.” The CRA noted in a letter that year there were “active hyperlinks” to the ABWA website on the charity’s own site, Islamabc.org, and the directors had invited Akhtari to an event in Toronto.
The charity said the web link was “simply for the Shia and others interested to be able to access any information about them,” and that Akhtari was to be a guest at a dinner marking Muslim Eid celebrations. “Unfortunately he got his visa the day after the event,” the charity wrote. The invitation “in no respect implies that he has or had any say in the operations of our organization.”
Prof. Thomas Juneau, an Iran expert at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences, said he was not familiar with the Canadian charity. But he said Iran and Hezbollah operated front organizations in the West, as well as in West Africa and South America.
While such groups pay lip service to the Iranian revolution, their activities are usually more pragmatic, he said. “A lot of it is foreign influence activities, which can mean in many cases pressure on the diaspora. That’s been the case a fair bit in Canada.”
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CRA audit alleges funding from Iran
During interviews conducted in 2011 as part of the audit, the charity said it “received funding from Iran up until around 2008 and that ABWA claims to have entitlement to the organization’s assets,” the CRA said.
Following the audit, the CRA again raised concerns that “the Assembly is supporting the operational goals of ABWA,” and said that four charity board members had attended conferences for ABWA members, at ABWA’s expense.
One spoke at the 2011 General Assembly, which was attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Naim Qassem, the deputy leader of Hezbollah, the CRA wrote in an April 2013 letter to the charity.
The CRA also said that from 1999 to 2003, the charity’s founder, Syed Hosseni-Nassab, had served as president of the Islamic Centre of Hamburg, which Germany identified as “subordinate to the government of Iran in the dissemination of Islamic revolutionary ideology and pro-regime propaganda throughout Germany.”
“In this regard, we believe that Mr. Nassab may have established the Assembly to also facilitate the spread of Iranian revolutionary ideology in Canada,” the CRA wrote in its letter.
The charity responded that Hosseini-Nassab’s appointment had been “confirmed” by the German government, and the Hamburg centre’s presidents had included Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, who was president of Iran but “does not agree with the way the Iranian government is operating now.”
Iranian takeover attempt
In a letter responding to the CRA audit, the charity’s secretary-treasurer, Ghulam Sajan, described a takeover attempt by ABWA, which he said was done “out of jealousy” because Hosseini-Nassab had declared himself a Grand Ayatollah.
During a trip to Iran to speak at an ABWA conference, Sajan said he met with Akhtari, who claimed the Canadian group owed money to ABWA for an outstanding loan. Sajan’s passport was seized and he was not allowed to leave, the letter said.
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“Gulam was not able to contact the Canadian embassy in Tehran. Ghulam was only permitted to leave after he was forced to sign a declaration under duress transferring all of the assets held in the possession of ISAC to ABWA.”
“No funds were ever transferred to ABWA,” the letter said.
In November 2011, another ABWA official, Seyed Hassan Ojaghi Tabrizi, visited Toronto and said “he had a letter from ABWA authorizing him to take over the control of ISAC,” the letter continued. But the charity rebuffed him, it said.
“It is our understanding that ABWA’s Secretary General, Mohammed Hassan Akhtari and ABWA official, Sayyed Hassan Tabrizi, claim that the organization owes money to ABWA (from a previous loan) and that they have refused to pay it back,” the CRA wrote.
The CRA, however, said there was no mention of the takeover attempt in the charity’s meeting minutes. The charity also “failed to respond” to the CRA’s request for a detailed history of its relationship and contacts with ABWA, the agency alleged.
Loss of charity status challenged in court
The CRA revoked the Canadian Shia Assembly’s charity status in February 2016, citing several grounds, including “acting as a facilitator organization to support the operational goals of the social-political organization, Iranian Ahlul Bayt World Assembly, in Canada.”
Some years, the audit said, more than half the charity’s spending was on properties in the Toronto area, although the auditors did not believe they were being used for charitable purposes, nor could they determine the source of the money used to purchase some of them.
The charity’s statement to Global News denied any impropriety related to the properties and insisted they were used for charitable purposes.
The CRA wrote last October that it was revoking the charity’s status for “not being constituted for exclusively charitable purposes and not devoting all of its resources to charitable activities.”
Other grounds it cited were failing to file accurate tax returns, improperly issuing receipts for donations and “not maintaining adequate books and records.”
Four Islamic Shia Assembly of Canada directors appealed the decision to the Federal Court in November, saying the allegations were “based on speculations, closed-mindedness, bald allegations and exaggerations by an overzealous auditor.”
In a Notice of Appeal, the charity’s accountant, Syed Naqvi, claimed the CRA had retracted and watered down its “harsh and ridiculous” allegations, but had stood by its decision to strip charity status in order to “save face.”
Hosseini-Nassab could not be reached for comment. Rabbi Cory Weiss of the Temple Har Zion in Toronto, which shares a parking lot with the Imam Mahdi Islamic Centre, where Hosseini-Nassab is imam, said he was unaware of the dispute.
The rabbi said the two congregations had co-sponsored a Syrian refugee family, and he had found Hosseini-Nassab agreeable and cooperative.
“Our interaction has always been pleasant, that’s all I really know.”