HARARE – Widespread public fury has erupted in Zimbabwe as the cash-strapped government is beginning to make churches a prime target for taxation.
While Taungana Ndoro, Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra)’s chief of corporate communications, was still not ready with an official statement on the crackdown saying the technical crew conducting the operation was still out, faith-based organisations insisted that they should not be taxed as they were doing work which government has failed to do.
As public outcry grew, Zimbabwe’s tax agency continued sending officials to local churches as part of an investigation into tax evasion, making inquiries about their sources of income and seeking information on people who donate to the churches.
Churches in Zimbabwe are mostly run as charity organisations which are exempted from taxation but government’s desperation for funds has seen Zimra descending on churches.
Bishop Noah Pashapa of Life and Liberty Churches said churches should not be taxed except those which run as businesses.
“There are churches that operate as business cooperatives whereby they are owned by an individual who benefits from offerings and tithes directly,” Pashapa said.
“And then there are those that operate as faith-based not-for-profit organisations which are public entities whose income is channelled towards community development and social transformation.”
Pashapa said it was not only immoral but unfair and detrimental to society for government to tax faith-based organisations because they were fulfilling a role that government has failed to perform.
“These churches are doing what government has failed, which is feed and clothe prisoners and cater for the well-being of the widows, orphans, elderly and other vulnerable people in society,” he said.
The founder of Life and Liberty Churches however said those churches that operate as business entities with a sole proprietor should be heavily taxed.
Alec Matumba of the Apostolic Faith Mission said churches and government were equal partners because they both have a conscience to society.
Matumba said government should appreciate the work that is being done by churches as it was taking care of a lot of institutions including schools and orphanages.
“It is barbaric for Caesar to be asking for a contribution from the church,” Matumba said. “Our donations go to orphans and we contribute immensely to society.
“It is not fair to increase the burden on the churches. It is also grossly unjust to even think, let alone write down that churches should be made to pay taxes.”
He also highlighted that government should not make everyone suffer because of the few flamboyant churches that parade their wealth without contributing to society.
Admire Taderera, Heartfelt Ministries International spokesperson, said if the taxation was in line with statutes, then his church would comply with the order.
“I want to believe that Zimra’s actions are guided by the government,” Taderera said.
“The only challenge that we may face is that of our Heartlife branch of the church which cares for the disadvantaged people in the community which may suffer from this.”
In the Bible, the issue of taxing also caused controversy when the Pharisees asked Jesus whether they should be paying taxes to Caesar or not. Jesus replied “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
A remarkable number of churches treated the taxation as a taboo subject, with many saying they were yet to sit down and coordinate a response to government’s latest move.
The Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) which is an interdenominational organisation made up of 26 different denominations, said it needed to consult.
“We need to consult with our member churches before we have a position as an organisation because our denominations have different backgrounds,” said ZCC president Ishmael Mukuwanda.
“As an executive, we meet twice a year but we have officers on the ground to work on various issues but they need to consult first.”
Government has failed to raise money even to fund the budget whose presentation has been postponed to next year amid a wave of economic chaos that is starting to affect the generality of Zimbabweans.
So desperate is government that Zimra officials are said to be putting pressure on church leaders to reveal names of people who make donations to the church.
But the same business people who make donations to churches are also taxed at their companies raising questions on the motives of Zimra officials.