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Is It Time For Church Regulation And Taxation?

By Ijabla Raymond  (Monday, 21 August 2013)

This is no news to most observers of Nigerian Pentecostal churches. They preach prosperity to the point of absurdity, and their followers have come to accept this as normal. Their pastors demand multiple donations, some of which are drawn on cheques and foreign currencies and collected in large buckets. The congregants are fleeced every week but do not complain despite the obvious ostentation and opulence of their pastors. In fact, members donate cheerfully as they have been told and firmly believe that this will open the floodgates of heaven to unleash unlimited prosperity. Bear in mind that some of these individuals cannot afford to feed themselves.

Anyone can start a church in Nigeria – no qualifications are required other than a statement to the effect that God has spoken to one to start a church. Church is a very profitable business in this country; little wonder there is a church on nearly every street. And of course, no taxes are paid. Pastors are greatly revered and some of them have very influential friends in government and politics. Corruption is a big thing in Nigeria too. It is perhaps, the biggest problem that hinders Nigeria’s development. Corrupt politicians and some pastors have an unholy alliance: Politicians can loot the national treasure as much as they like and buy‘penance’ from the pastors through generous church donations. After all, God loves a cheerful giver and welcomes all sinners. Now you see why Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world despite the ubiquitous influence of churches (and mosques). The degree of religiosity of its peoples has not translated to a commensurate degree of morality, as one would expect.

Few churches donate to charitable causes despite the glaringly obvious need to do so. Our society is in dire need of orphanages, schools, hospitals, motor-able roads, pipe-borne water, and rehabilitation centres e.g. for the disabled, young offenders or those with alcohol and drug-related problems etc. Nigerian churches are excellent fund-raisers. Only recently, a pastor asked for a donation of about £120million to build a church auditorium of mammoth dimensions - approx. 3km long x 3km wide. Believe this or not, but reports say he asked 10 people to donate £4 million each and a further 100 people to donate £0.4 million each! How many people, who have worked hard for their money will donate such amounts of money so easily? Given his pedigree, there is little to doubt the pastor will not achieve his budgetary goal. But ask Nigerians to donate to build a hospital and you will be lucky to get any donations. Obviously, as a people, our priorities are very misplaced. Our hospitals are so badly resourced these days that everybody with the financial means goes abroad for medical treatment. Very little money, if any at all, is given to charities from the humongous funds raised by churches. Also, some of the pastors are absolute rulers and can do exactly what they want with these funds without being held to account by their members. Members are careful not to criticise their pastors so as not to incur the wrath of God, and will often cite a Bible verse that says ‘Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm’. By the way, this verse is very popular with the pastors. The members are happy to leave all criticisms and matters of accountability to God.

Many Nigerian pastors have church branches in the UK and the US (where foreign exchange is very favourable) but they conveniently avoid hostile places such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, and Syria - all of which are ‘fertile grounds’ with teeming numbers of the exact kinds of people that require the gospel of Jesus. Someof these pastors are astute businessmen who have undoubtedly capitalised on the naivety, credulity and generous donations of their followers to establish business empires, which people perceive as separate to the church e.g. printing presses and private universities. These universities are very expensive and are not subsidised for the poor church members who continue to make weekly contributions to church funds. Some of these pastors own private jets and chains of luxury cars and expensive properties both at home and abroad. Or how else does one explain such opulence when these individuals have no other apparent source of income or patents attached to their names?

A very worrying feature of Nigerian Pentecostal churches is ‘miracle healing’. Pastors claim they can cure all types of diseases through prayers and the use of items such as anointing oil and handkerchiefs. The disastrous consequence of this is that people often die from their diseases without ever going to hospital while these pastors are never held accountable for their lies or faked healing credentials.

In other parts of Nigeria (e.g. Calabar and Akwa Ibom) where Pentecostalism is juxtaposed with indigenous religion, this trend assumes a danger of alarming proportion.  Witches, evil spirits, demons and human enemies are believed to be responsible for diseases and misfortunes. Vulnerable children are labelled as witches and are subjected to all manners of physical abuses including burns, beatings and deaths.  You are probably familiar with the story of the young girl that had a nail driven into her skull in the name of exorcism.

In my opinion, we have now got to a point where the government needs to consider regulating churches.  The government has a duty to protect its citizens from harm and exploitation. These Pentecostal churches have proven beyond reasonable doubt that they are profitable commercial businesses and government is losing revenues by not taxing them. People can argue, quite sensibly, that the pastors haven’t forced anybody to donate money. This is true to the extent that they have not held a gun to anybody’s head but one cannot ignore the mental coercions and invocations of guilt that take place. Are we going to pretend it is ok for our people to die from diseases because pastors have brainwashed them into thinking these can be cured by miracles thereby depriving them of the opportunity to visit hospitals where their ailments have any real chances of treatment? Some pastors go as far telling patients not to take their medications. Shouldn’t these pastors be charged for manslaughter if prosecutors can prove that harm or death has occurred as a direct result of the pastors’ claims? The problem for the government is that it lacks the moral high ground to prosecute these individuals because of its own failure to alleviate poverty and provide basic amenities for its citizens such as hospitals, good roads, electricity, water etc

President Paul Biya of Cameroun has recently closed down about 100 churches, which are said to have dodgy credentials. I think this is a good start although I can’t say that Mr Biya has not got ulterior motives. The churches claim he desperately wants to hold on to power and has become intolerant of their criticisms. The danger with this approach, I suppose, is the risk of emergence of ‘state churches’ through patronage. Churches, which tow the line, can enjoy as much freedom as they want to do whatever they like.  Nonetheless, this is an important debate to have and I would love to read your views: Should government regulate the activities of churches and their pastors? What is the best way to go about this? Should the registration of new churches come with a pre-condition to establish or support charities? Do you think churches should be made to pay taxes? If not, why not? Or shall we just plod along like we currently are?

Before I end, let me point out that there are always exceptions to any rule. I am sure there are churches and pastors that are well integrated into the community and pursue goals that elevate the dignity of humanity. They should be applauded.

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