Repressing movements labeled as “cults,” including through a misuse of taxes, and denying tax justice also happens in Italy. But more remedies exist there.
by PierLuigi Zoccatelli*
*A paper presented at the Webinar “Protest, Conscience, and Human Rights: International Perspectives on the Tai Ji Men Case,” April 6, 2021.
Reading the articles scholars from different countries have published about the Tai Ji Men case evidences both similarities and differences with the situation in Italy.
It seems to me that the Tai Ji Men case has three main features. First, a repression in 1996 of spiritual movements labeled as “cults,” largely dictated by political reasons. In the case of Tai Ji Men, a crucial role was played by a prosecutor who decided to make the case as spectacular as possible, and involved the media from the beginning. Although he had announced that he had uncovered serious crimes, no evidence was found to support his claim, and he even fabricated evidence. In the end, after the courts’ thorough investigations, he lost all his criminal cases against Tai Ji Men, proving his accusations were false.
This sounds familiar to a scholar observing the case from Italy. Although the situation is slightly quieter now, we had a long season in Italy where prosecutors turned justice into a show for the benefit of the media. Some of these prosecutors eventually became politicians, members of the Parliament, founders of political parties, governors of states, and mayors of large cities. In some cases, prosecutors targeted new religious and spiritual movements. Just as in the Tai Ji Men case, they started with well-publicized police raids, and tried to get as much media attention as possible, but most of these actions ended up with the defendants being found not guilty.
The second main feature of the Tai Ji Men case is that when the case was under the criminal proceeding by the prosecutor, it was transferred to the National Tax Bureau (NTB) at the same time. Even when the defendants were found not guilty, the NTB would surprisingly refuse to follow the court decision. Moreover, even when the court had clearly stated that Tai Ji Men did not evade taxes, the NTB would still continue to issue tax bills and put pressure on them. The whole story evidenced that spiritual minorities may be mistreated and discriminated in Taiwan when it comes to taxes. This may still occasionally happen in Italy, but we mostly connect this to the Fascist era. The Catholic Church had settled its financial problems with the State through the Concordat signed in 1929, but there were no similar provisions for other religions. The democratic Constitution of 1947 opened the road for minority religions who would enter into an agreement called “Intesa” with the State to be directly supported by the taxpayers. For complicated reasons, this system could only come into force after a new Concordat was signed with the Catholic Church in 1984. Twelve “Intesa” followed, with a variety of religious minorities, including the Italian Buddhist Union, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, and the Italian Hindu Union.
We have a system called “otto per mille” under which taxpayers are requested to indicate to which religion they ask the state to give 0.8 percent of their taxes. They can also select the state itself, but if they do not select any religion, nor the state, 0.8% of their taxes will not come back to them (as it happens in the similar German system), or be appropriated by the state. It will be divided among the participating religions (and the state) in proportion of the choices made by those who did make a choice. To give you a simple example, if out of 200 Italians, 50 indicate that they want their 0.8% to go to the Catholic Church, 50 to the Buddhists, and 100 do not make a choice, half of the 0.8% of the taxes of the hundred citizens who did not make a choice will go to the Catholics and half to the Buddhists.
Gifts to those religions who do not have an “Intesa” are also not taxable, provided the group receiving these gifts is recognized as religious or spiritual. But Italian courts have adopted a broad definition of religion, which is not based on the Christian model only. For instance, Scientology has been recognized as a religion in 1997 by a decision of the Supreme Court of Cassation.
It is a traditional custom in Chinese culture for dizi (disciples) to offer monetary gifts to their Shifu (master), which also comply with the laws in Taiwan. These gifts would not be considered a taxable item in Italy either. Any attempt to discriminate spiritual groups through taxes will have a bad flavor as something reminiscent of the Fascist era, and of a time when freedom of religion or belief was not fully guaranteed in Italy.
A third feature of the Tai Ji Men case is gross abuse by tax bureaucrats, and the difficulty of effectively correct these abuses as there is no effective remedy system in Taiwan. We do have similar problems in Italy, and our own tax bureaucrats are often criticized. However, we have a possibility that does not exist in Taiwan. Cases of gross tax injustice may be submitted to the European Court of Human Rights, which indeed ruled repeatedly against Italy in tax cases. I understand that the possibility of an appeal to a supra-national court does not exist in Taiwan. This is unfortunate, because the European Court of Human Rights did intervene also in cases when religious or spiritual movements, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mandarom in France, were discriminated through tax abuses.
Human rights are universal values, and an important indicator of whether a country is democratic or not. In any case, the Tai Ji Men case has revealed a serious human rights problem, showing how state power can persecute its people through judicial and tax measures, a phenomenon that should not exist in a democratic and free country. I hope that the conscience of Taiwan’s democratic institutions will awake, allowing them to solve the problem as soon as possible, truly practice social justice, and defend democracy, freedom, and human rights.