14 January 2020, The Tablet

Row over church tax aid to refugees

More than 19,000 adults and children have died in the Mediterranean, the world's deadliest migration route, since 2014.

Row over church tax aid to refugees

A young child is rescued from a boat by the crew of the Alan Kurdi rescue ship, operated by German charity Sea-Eye.
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

Money donated by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, to help refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean, has prompted divided responses in Germany on whether or not churches should support sea rescue operations.

According to a KNA survey, not only Marx’s Munich-Freising archdiocese, but several other German dioceses, have a special budget, consisting mainly of church taxpayers’ money, which bishops can use at their own discretion, for social, charitable and world church causes.

As soon as the news was out that Marx had for the third time donated 50,000 Euros (£42,500) to a private immigrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean, praise and condemnation were expressed on social media in equal measure. “A truly great gesture! There are still moments when one is proud of one’s Church,” contrasted with “smuggler cardinal”, “populist Red Ridinghood” and “Cardinal Marx is driving Christians out of the Church and Islamising Europe.” Questions frequently posed were: “May he do that?” “Where does the money come from?” and “Does it come out church tax?” German church taxpayers have to pay 8-9 per cent of their net income to the Church.

The money for the refugees does mainly come out of church tax. Exactly how much in Cardinal Marx’s archdiocese of Munich-Freising is not known but is thought to have been 1.5m euros (£1,285,000) in 2018 according to KNA.

On the latest occasion Marx donated the money to United4Rescue, an alliance initiated by the chairman of the Protestant Churches in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, which aims to finance an immigrant rescue ship.

In an interview with the German daily Augsburger Allgemeine, Bedford-Strohm said he had been receiving “very specific death threats”, but wasn’t taking them very seriously.

A prominent German Protestant theologian, Professor Ulrich Körtner, however, has repeatedly warned the Churches against supporting sea rescue in the Mediterranean. The motives of many rescuers and their supporters were problematic, he said. “As long as sea rescue is automatically a ticket to Europe, NGOs will de facto be exploited by people smuggling networks,” Körnter pointed out. 

Meanwhile, confidence in the German Catholic Church as an institution has fallen to 14 per cent of the population according to the German Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis, one of the leading market research and polling companies in Germany. The Forsa report on confidence in institutions is published annually in January. The German Catholic Church now ranks third from last in the Forsa list, just ahead of advertising agencies. Confidence in the German Protestant Church is higher at 36 per cent.

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