Comparative study on the persecution of religious minorities through taxation in France and in Taiwan
Oral presentation at the online conference of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR) on 7-9 August 2021
(Part I: Jehovah’s Witnesses)
An article already published in Human Rights Without Frontiers on August 12th, 2021.
Session A1: Relevant Spirituality: The Tai Ji Men Case and Protests in Taiwan
Organizer: Massimo Introvigne,
CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), Torino, Italy
- “A Surprising Case: What Tai Ji Men Tells Us About Taiwan”
Eileen Barker, London School of Economics (emerita)
- “Tai Ji Men: A Background”
Massimo Introvigne, CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), Torino, Italy
- “A Comparative study of State Control of Religions through Taxation in France and Taiwan”
Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers, Brussels, Belgium
- “The Tai Ji Men Tax Case: An Economist’s View”
Pier Marco Ferraresi, University of Torino, Italy
- ““Who Stole Their Youth?”: Tai Ji Men Members Confront State Power.”
Linda Chen, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS
By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers
HRWF (11.08.2021) – On the occasion of this webinar, I am very pleased to share with the participants in this session some of our monitoring experience of the persecution of religious groups by tax administrations.
The unfortunate experience of Tai Ji Men with the tax administration in Taiwan presents some striking similarities with the cases of four religious groups which were arbitrarily persecuted by the tax administration in France: Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Evangelical Church of Besançon, the Association of the Knights of the Golden Lotus and the Religious Association of the Pyramid Temple. In all these cases, the French tax administration suddenly decided to impose a 60% tax on all the manual gifts they would receive.
In 1996, the then Taiwanese government launched a crackdown on groups labelled as xie jiao or “cults,” which according to most scholars having studied the incident was politically motivated. The crackdown also targeted Tai Ji Men, although it had never been involved in politics.
In January of the same year, a French parliamentary report classifying the four aforementioned religious groups as harmful cult-like movements (mouvements sectaires in French) led to their stigmatization in the media and resulted in various forms of hostility and discrimination by state bodies, including the tax administration.
In both countries, there were suspicions of fraud and tax evasion on manual gifts. For Tai Ji Men and the incriminated French religious organizations, it was the beginning of a long obstacle race through their respective domestic courts.
Let us start with the emblematic case of Jehovah’s Witnesses v. France.
Jehovah’s Witnesses v. France (application 8916/05)
The stigmatization of Jehovah’s Witnesses and French tax administration
On 10 January 1996, the French National Assembly published a report about 172 allegedly dangerous cults (sects in French), which were almost portrayed as criminal associations.
That “blacklist”, as it was soon called by the media, had a devastating impact on those religious and spiritual groups. Jehovah’s Witnesses were on that blacklist. Following that report, they were discriminated against, stigmatized and ostracized both in their private life and public life. Steps were taken by state administrations to marginalise them and treat them differently from mainline religions. In particular, the tax authorities carried out an audit.
On the basis of the information gathered during that audit, the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses was given notice to declare all the manual gifts that they had received from 1993 to 1996 and to pay taxes. This was an unexpected new interpretation of the General Tax Code that was suddenly applied to the movement of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The association refused and asked that the tax exemption applicable to manual gifts and legacies to be applied as every year before 1993 as there had not been any change in the Tax Code in this regard.
As the association of Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to submitt the declaration requested by the tax authorities, it was subjected to an automatic taxation procedure on all the manual gifts received from 1993 to 1996.
The tax administration justified its decision by claiming that the manual gifts “[had been] disclosed to the tax authorities in the course of the accounting audits to which it [had been] subjected”.
The term “disclosed” is a key word in the French taxation administrative language because it implies that the “disclosure” was a voluntary move by the association in order to be taxed on the gifts it had received. This was not the case as the audit was not requested by the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses but was imposed on them by the administration and could therefore not be refused. Moreover, there had never been any legal obligation to disclose manual gifts to the tax administration. Obviously, there was a clear manipulation of the administrative terminology to corner the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, as it appeared afterwards, to kill them financially. Another similarity with Tai Ji Men case.
In May 1998 the Association was notified of a supplementary tax assessment for the equivalent of about 45 million EUR (about 23 million EUR for the principal and 22 million EUR in default interest and surcharges). The Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses stressed that the tax claimed concerned manual gifts made by 250,000 individuals over four years (or an average of 4 EUR per person per month for the period 1993-1996).
During the next six years, the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses used all the domestic remedies that it could to assert its rights but in the meantime, with the accumulation of fines for the non-payment of the contested taxes, the amount claimed by the tax administration had risen from 45 million EUR to more than 57.5 million EUR.
The only possible way out for Jehovah’s Witnesses was then to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
The European Court of Human Rights
On 24 February 2005, the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses lodged a complaint against France with the European Court of Human Rights. It alleged, among other things, that the imposed taxation of manual gifts interfered with its right to manifest and exercise its freedom of religion as guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention.
The procedures lasted for six years, until 2011, and focused primarily on the controversial interpretation of the “disclosure” of manual gifts and the allegedly undue interference of the state in the freedom of religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses through a punitive taxation.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed that in imposing the controversial tax the state was attacking the freedom of religion of their 200,000 members. Indeed, if the 60% taxation were to be confirmed, it would result in the seizure and sale of their headquarters (Bethel), the loss of their national place of worship, the choking and even the survival in France.
The attorney of the Association, Philippe Goni, argued that the collective practice of a religion implies the possibility of relying on material resources, generally obtained through the adherents’ financial contributions to rent or acquire a place of worship, among other things. The manual gifts are religious in nature and represent a major source of income for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ collective exercise of their religion, namely 86.47%.
Lastly, their counsel accused the state of discrimination as the manual gifts in mainline religions were exempt of any taxation.
Decision of the European Court
In its judgment of 30 June 2011, the European Court found a violation of Article 9 (right to freedom of religion), noting that the supplementary tax assessment “had concerned the entirety of the manual gifts received by the association, although they represented the main source of its funding. Its operating resources having thus been cut, it had no longer been able to guarantee to its followers the free exercise of their religion in practical terms.”
By a judgment of 5 July 2011 the Court held that France was to reimburse the 4,590,295 euros (EUR) for the taxes unduly claimed by the tax administration that the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses had paid under coercion and 55,000 EUR for costs and expenses.
It cannot be said that it was a happy end, in the usual sense, to this 15-year long saga because the damage caused to the association and its members went far beyond the financial issue but that is another story.
Tai Ji Men’s legal battles have been lasting for 25 years and no end is in sight. Unfortunately for Tai Ji Men, there is no Asian Court of Human Rights where they could lodge a complaint but it is to be hoped that one day the current government of Taiwan will be able to repair the damage caused under previous government since the mid-1990s.