A written submission exposed a growing international problem, quoting the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan.

by Marco Respinti 

An article already published in Bitter Winter on September 13th, 2021.

Thierry Valle of CAP-LC.
Thierry Valle of CAP-LC.

The ECOSOC-accredited NGO CAP-LC (Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience) filed a written submission for the 48th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which starts in Geneva on September 13. The document is published on the Web site of the United Nations. CAP-LC expressed its concern for “the use of real estate seizures as a weapon to discriminate against religious and spiritual minorities.”

It may seem that real estate seizure or destruction is a minor problem when compared to arrests, killings, and torture. However, CAP-LC observed that “religion and spirituality live in the hearts of the believers, but they create communities, and communities cannot exist without places where they can gather.” Additionally, for religious and spiritual groups “land where devotees gather becomes sacred land. Religion and spirituality live in time and space. They separate portions of time and space from the daily temporal and spatial flow, appropriate them for themselves, and invest them with spiritual meanings. Taking their spaces away from spiritual movements means cutting their deepest roots.”

For each religious or spiritual group, the sacred space is its fortress. Taking these spaces away from them inappropriately is tantamount to trampling on their dignity and freedom of religion or belief. Additionally, once believers lose the roots that help stabilize their hearts and souls, they may grow restless and anxious, leading to all kinds of negative thinking and behavior, and seriously undermining domestic and international social stability.

Destructions of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, noted CAP-LC, happen routinely in various parts of the world. They are “a powerful symbolic statement” that their beliefs and identities are not tolerated by their societies and countries. This is part of a global crisis because discrimination against religions and beliefs shows that governments and world citizens are unable to embrace, tolerate, respect, or appreciate different cultures or races. How could the world’s sustainable development be possible when love, tolerance and unity disappear?

CAP-LC mentioned “the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001,” and that the United Nations decided that the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development should be celebrated on May 21, the day the destruction of the two statues was completed in 2001. The NGO also mentioned the desecration of mosques of the Ahmadiyya religion in Pakistan, and the seizure of properties of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Such incidents are not only a loss for the minorities, but a catastrophe for human civilization as a whole, and sad evidence that the world is not advancing towards a greater respect for freedom of religion or belief and human rights.

The branch office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Solnechnoye, St. Petersburg, Russia, confiscated in 2019. Source: jw.org.
The branch office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Solnechnoye, St. Petersburg, Russia, confiscated in 2019. Source: jw.org.

Why is real estate especially targeted? “As human rights expert Rosita Šorytė recently wrote, noted CAP-LC, among the reasons why some religious and spiritual groups are persecuted, ‘we should not dismiss the greed of politicians and bureaucrats who, in ‘liquidating’ religious movements, are also eager to take control of their bank accounts and real estate.’” 

Assets belonging to a few religious and spiritual communities around the world continue to be confiscated or destroyed, which is deeply disturbing. CAP-LC also denounced a serious violation of freedom of

belief that occurred in Taiwan, where land intended for self-cultivation of members of a spiritual movement, Tai Ji Men, was illegally seized, illegally offered for auction, and then illegally confiscated by the government in 2020 after two auctions failed. This is part of a case that has not yet ended after 25 years since its beginning. 

This case recently made significant breakthrough. The late tax collector Shi Yue-Sheng stated in an interview prior to his death that he was obliged to cooperate with the investigation at the time. Prosecutor Hou Kuan-jen oversaw the Tai Ji Men case, pressuring him to falsely testify that he had discovered evidence of tax evasion. “It was just a set-up,” Shi explained. Taxation is based on evidence, and Shi believed that the Tai Ji Men case should be postponed until such evidence could be obtained. The money should not be counted if the calculation of the amount cannot be explained. However, at the request of Prosecutor Hou, the Investigation Bureau’s City Field Office insisted on doing so. This discovery demonstrated that Prosecutor Hou’s claim of tax evasion at Tai Ji Men was wholly fabricated and deliberately constructed.

The testimony of Shu Yue-Shen.

The case, CAP-LC recalled, “started in 1996, when the leader of Tai Ji Men, his wife, and two disciples were accused of fraud and tax evasion and arrested. This had happened for political motivations,” although in fact Tai Ji Men never took a political stand. The criminal section of the Supreme Court “acquitted the defendants in 2007, stating in particular that there had been no tax evasion. National compensation for the wrongful detention was given to those who had been detained.”

 “This should have been the end of the Tai Ji Men case, CAP-LC noted. However, some NTB bureaucrats decided to ignore the court decision and go on with their unjustified tax evasion action. They also knew that they could pocket significant bonuses by issuing tax bills against a large movement such as Tai Ji Men.”

Accordingly, notwithstanding the fact that Taiwan’s Supreme Court had concluded that there was no tax evasion, the NTB tried to maintain their tax bills for the years 1991 to 1996. “In 2019, CAP-LC’s summary of the case continued, the NTB, in accordance with the ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court and the Taipei High Administrative Court, agreed that tax bills for the years 1991 and 1993 to 1996 should be corrected to zero, but maintained the tax bill for 1992, including penalties. Logically, this did not make sense, as 1992 was not different from the other years. The NTB relied on a technicality, i.e., that for the year 1992, and only for that year, a decision by the Supreme Administrative Court rendered in 2006 had become final. But it is a general principle of law that even final decisions can and should be revised or not enforced when a new fact intervenes,” not to mention that the “final decision” for 1992 was rendered through a flawed process. Clearly, the enforcement agencies should have withdrawn the tax bill for human rights and religious liberty reasons. In fact, during the 2010 public hearing at the Legislative Yuan, the NTB admitted the mistake, promised to revoke the 1992 illegal tax bill and terminate the Tai Ji Men tax case within two months. However, the NTB broke its promise.

“On May 5 and July 23, 2020, CAP-LC concluded, the Taipei High Administrative Court wrote twice to the NTB for the Central Area, asking them to treat 1992 as the other years had been treated. However, the NTB ignored it.” In August 2020, as mentioned earlier, the land that had been seized was illegally auctioned by the National Enforcement Agency, then confiscated after two auctions were not successful. 

“This property, CAP-LC noted, was important for Tai Ji Men, which planned to build a center for self-cultivation there.” And it is also the case that, “according to the Taiwan’s enforcement laws (Articles 53 and 113), property used for rituals and worship cannot be seized at all.”

Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taiwan.

CAP-LC saw in the Tai Ji Men case “a clear example of the international trend” where religious and spiritual minorities are discriminated and persecuted by attacking their properties. CAP-LC commented that “spiritual minorities need spaces to exist. They become their sacred spaces. Taking these spaces away from them is one of the worst examples of discrimination.”

Additionally, as mentioned earlier, illegally seizing properties in an attempt to discriminate against religious or spiritual minorities threatens the stability of society and the world order. It has seriously violated the universal value of protection of freedom of religion and belief. This is why this problem was raised before the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, hoping that the international community would appreciate its seriousness and take decisive action.