Latest attempt to tax clergy creates a holy fuss

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Latest attempt to tax clergy creates a holy fuss

The issue of taxation and religion has become a hot political potato as politicians try to make their case that the clergy should pay income tax, from which they have been exempt for over 50 years.

Saenuri lawmakers on the National Assembly’s Strategy and Finance Committee held a two-hour meeting with representatives of Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists at the National Assembly Monday.

The meeting came as the government plans to levy income tax on people of the cloth. Under the plan, the government seeks to impose an income tax of 22 percent on 20 percent of the incomes earned by ordained people starting from next year.

The purpose of Monday’s meeting was to deal with complaints from the religious sector, particularly the Protestant church.

During the closed meeting, Catholic pastors and monks expressed their intention to accept the new tax policy, but protestant leaders lashed out, going so far as to describe it as “religious persecution.”

Rep. Kang Seog-hoon of the Saenuri Party said after the meeting the government would try to seek more consensus from religious communities.

It remains to be seen whether the government will go ahead with the tax plan, particularly with the potential political fallout disgruntled Christians, who number 8.61 million or 18.3 percent of the population, according to 2005 data by Statistics Korea.

The Saenuri is concerned that it could suffer in the 2016 general elections if protestants are upset. The party is already taking heat from government workers for its drive to overhaul the money-losing pension system for bureaucrats.

The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) is having nothing to do with taxing the clergy. NPAD floor leader Woo Yoon-grun said his party has never discussed the issue.

If implemented as planned, between 10 and 20 billion won ($8.9 and $17.9 million) will be collected from 15,000 clergy members in tax revenues yearly.

Controversy over whether the Christian clergy and Buddhist monks should be exempted from tax dates to 1968 when Lee Nak-yeon, the first head of the National Tax Service, openly demanded ordained people perform their civic duty to pay tax.

Catholics were the first to break the tradition by paying income tax on a voluntary basis in 1994.

In 2006, a civic group filed a complaint accusing the head of the NTS of breach of trust for not imposing tax on religious people.

Governments have attempted to tax the clergy a number of times in the past but were thwarted by strong objections by the Christian community.

BY CHUN GWON-PIL, KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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