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Flock flees Church over tax and opulence shock

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Flock flees Church over tax and opulence shock
Church spending and the religious tax has upset many nominal worshippers. Photo: DPA
13:04 CEST+02:00
New awareness of Germany's Church tax and outrage at lavish clergy spending have triggered a rapid exodus from the Church – much to the upset of institutions that could lose millions in revenue.

The faithful are bolting for the door: Numbers of people leaving both the Protestant and Catholic Church jumped 50 percent in the first half of the year, following a surge in 2013 amid debates about Church finances and wasteful spending, Tagesspiegel newspaper reported on Thursday.

In Berlin, more than 10,000 Protestants formally renounced their Church membership, more than the total number in the whole of 2011 or 2012. And Bavaria posted a drop of 14,800 members from January to June, compared to 9,800 during the whole of 2013.

But the Church is partly blaming the banks for reminding people that eight to nine percent of their income is automatically deducted as Church Tax (Kirchensteuer), unless the tax payer specifies otherwise.

As of January, 2015, the tax will be deducted by individual banks rather than the Finance Office.

Notifications sent out by banks of the changes have prompted many people to either rethink their Church membership, or realise with a shock that they had been paying money to the Church at all.

While the tax is automatically levied on Germans, most foreigners opt out of the system when they arrive and register by declaring that they are non-religious or not affiliated with a recognized faith.

Or they get caught out in their struggle to complete the paperwork in German.

"I've been paying it for years, I didn't know how much I had been paying them till I realised KS meant church tax!" one dismayed Briton wrote on a discussion forum. "So I went to the local [town hall] and took the stand to opt OUT." 

None of this sits well with either Church, which stand to lose millions in revenues if the opt-out flow becomes a torrent. Church officials have also objected to the notion that the tax is anything new, and say the banks are even playing devil's advocate in the matter.

"People are being advised by their banks that the 'new' tax is best countered by leaving the Church," ecclesiastical council member Bernd Baucks, finance chief for the Rheinland regional church, told Tagesspiegel.

Much of the Kirchensteuer goes to support schools, day care centres, hospitals and other social welfare spending. But a sizable amount is also sent to the Vatican.

Church spending discussions already prompted many Catholics to formally leave, with more than 178,805 departing in 2013, which was 80,000 more than in 2012.

Anger over spending practices

But the exodus of the faithful also spiked in recent months amid the scandal over exorbitant spending by the Bishop of Limburg on his new headquarters.

Following his suspension last October, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst handed in his resignation to Pope Francis in March after a Catholic Church report detailed lavish expenses that were footed by tax payers.

The overall €31 million bill for the work included many lavish items, including a tank for ornamental fish with a depth of two metres that cost €213,000.

Without naming his disgraced colleague, Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx said the numbers of people now leaving the Church were a "helpful wake-up call".

Many of those renouncing their membership continue to observe their faith in private. But they are no longer entitled to receive sacraments, except last rites before death.

It is mainly young people who are heading for the door. But they are joined by growing numbers of pensioners, even though this forfeits them the right to a Church burial.

"Many religious people simply see how their money is being spent, the best example of which is the building splurge by van Elst," wrote a commentator to the Tagesspiegel story. "Grandma Müller has to pay Church tax from her money and is left with a pension of €700, while a Bishop's pension is thousands."

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