The assault on religious liberty is increasing, not decreasing, and is often conducted through the improper use of taxes.

by Sara S. Pozos Bravo*

*A paper presented at the webinar “After 25 Years: Solidarity with Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on December 21, 2021, after the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on Tai Ji Men (December 19, 1996) and the International Human Solidarity Day (December 20).

An article already published in Bitter Winter on January 7th, 2022.

Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, introducing Sara Pozos Bravo at the December 21 webinar.
Marco Respinti, director-in-charge of Bitter Winter, introducing Sara Pozos Bravo at the December 21 webinar.

The temptation of governments to persecute certain religious or spiritual groups is reaching extremes that we cannot allow. This siege is exercised by democratic governments as well as by dictatorial ones; by democratically elected governments as well as by unilaterally reelected ones; by those that swear on the Bible as well as by those that swear on a Constitution. The common denominator of this siege is that it is usually carried out against new religious groups or against the spiritual leaders of these groups.

The siege, which violates every human right fully recognized by the international instruments of the United Nations, is systematic, orderly, and permanent. It is constant and, above all, it is disguised as legality and respect for democracy and even human rights but is, in reality, religious persecution.

The instruments to carry out this persecution can be fiscal, through the imposition of taxes, the illegal auction and confiscation of land, as well as the freezing of accounts. It can also be mediatic, creating an unrealistic, often false and misrepresented image of the group’s spirituality or religion. Or it can be silent, trying to erase from all news the information that reveals the persecution against a spiritual group.

This form of persecution acquires dramatic overtones in some latitudes of the planet, and neither the globalization of the media nor the social networks can reach the dimension of the violation of human rights or the hatred poured against religious and spiritual groups or leaders.

From this side of the world, what we call the Far East seems very distant. So distant that it does not exist in the news, nor in social networks, and little appears in academic studies related to the religious phenomenon. What is studied, on the other hand, by our sociologists of religion or scholars of the religious phenomenon, almost never deals with cases of persecution and hatred against new religious or spiritual movements.

Sara Pozos at the webinar.
Sara Pozos at the webinar.

Not so in the United States. There, I mean in the United States, a few months ago the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, one of the most important such organizations in the world, was held. A session of the meeting discussed the Tai Ji Men case and the corresponding protests that have been going on for some years now.

The Tai Ji Men case is one of those that would never have been studied or publicized in Mexico, and perhaps not even in Latin America. Or at least until today, because it is urgent to insist, from our position, to make visible those forms that the public power uses to oppress, repress, and besiege the new spiritual groups.

A little over a year ago, in the midst of the pandemic and with the health restrictions that this entailed, more than 10,000 people demonstrated in Taiwan to protest against the illegal auctions and confiscation of land of the spiritual organization Tai Ji Men. Here, it is necessary to specify that I have used in this text “spiritual organization” as if it was a synonym of “religious group,” notwithstanding the obvious nuances and differences. However, international conventions on freedom of religion or belief protect both religious and spiritual movements.

Returning to the subject of the Tai Ji Men protest, it is necessary to specify that it is a historical saga of more than two decades. Twenty-five years ago, the siege against Tai Ji Men began with the arrest of its leader and other members of the organization. Later, after a trial, they were declared innocent and received compensation for wrongful imprisonment. But the siege had begun. In the context of what Massimo Introvigne has called the “uneasy relations that Chinese dynasties and governments, including Taiwan’s governments, always maintained with religious and spiritual movements,” the siege continued for more than two decades, unleashing Taiwan’s tax system against the Tai Ji Men spiritual organization.

For reference, I recommend to read the papers presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, where the case we are discussing today was studied in greater depth.

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

The case of Tai Ji Men, although remote to our geographical location, Mexico, is neither isolated nor unique. In Asian countries as well as in those of these latitudes, the tax pressure against new religious movement is a form of “modern” persecution by governments. In Mexico perhaps the danger is even greater because in similar cases normally not only tax evasion is mentioned, but also the alleged illicit origin of the religious movements’ resources.

Precisely the Tai Ji Men case is important because it makes visible this siege and use of political power against a spiritual, law-abiding, and legitimately constituted organization. And this case allows us to understand the use of public propaganda and the biased interpretation of the law to build a case that is clearly improper.

So, from Mexico, we join this academic and intellectual commitment to demand an end to this persecution that dates back 25 years. It is more than fair and necessary to stop it.