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Politics

South Korea welcomes tax on clergy amid anger at privileged class

Animosity toward special treatment fuels support for Moon reforms

SEOUL -- The South Korean government is planning to impose an income tax on pastors, monks and priests for the first time, starting next year, on the back of changing public sentiment toward religious leaders.

The Finance Ministry announced last week that the revised Income Tax Law will take effect in January. With the change, all employees at religious institutions, including Buddhist monks, Protestant pastors and Catholic priests, will be required to report their income to the tax agency.

"We know that many citizens support this, but we also understand religious groups' stance, because it is the first time they will experience" the tax, said Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon at a media briefing last week. "We will continue to listen to their opinions, discuss with them and persuade them."

This is the first time the government will levy income tax on clergy members. Critics say the change reflects shifting public attitudes toward religious groups. In an August survey conducted by Realmeter, 78.1% of respondents supported the government's tax plan, while only 9% opposed it. A further 5.2% said the authorities should give religious institutions more time to prepare before implementing the new tax policy, while 7.7% said they do not know.

South Koreans have become increasingly frustrated with institutions such as temples and churches as they are seen to have accumulated vast amounts of wealth through donations from ordinary people. 

Recently, the Myungsung Presbyterian Church drew heavy criticism for selecting Kim Ha-na as its chief pastor. Kim is the son of retired chief pastor Kim Sam-hwan.

Second- and third- generation clergy are not uncommon in the country, and the antipathy toward monks and priests has resulted in a tail wind for President Moon Jae-in, who has pressed for a heavier burden to be put on more privileged sections of society.

Despite the change, clergy members will still enjoy many tax privileges compared with other workers. For instance, the Finance Ministry excluded income they earn for directly related to religious duties from taxation. Since it is up to the institutions themselves to define religious and nonreligious activities, the new tax policy may not raise much revenue.

Religious institutions will also be able to keep separate books -- one for the institutions' income and expenses, and another for wages paid to clergy. The tax agency can only audit the latter for the purpose of calculating taxable income, thereby leaving the overall picture of institutions accounts murky.

The Finance Ministry released a sample income tax table for employees of religious institutions. According to the table, an employee who earns 50 million won ($46,000) a year and has a family of four will pay 50,730 won in income tax, about an half of a typical employee who pays 99,560 won under the same condition.

Some conservative Christian groups are opposed the tax plan and have vowed to protest it. "If the government pushes for the plan without resolving many problems, we will make a strong protest against this," said the Christian Council of Korea, an association of conservative Christian denominations.

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