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Ask Hans-Torsten: Church tax

Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to [email protected] with all your queries.

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Dear Hans-Torsten:

I’m Italian, and have moved to Berlin for an IT job. When I was asked my religion when getting angemeldet at the Bürgeramt, I said “nothing”. I was baptised Catholic, but never go to church except for funerals and weddings. I won’t have to pay the church tax, right? For me, the idea is strange and outdated. Is there any way they could find out I’m a Catholic?

 – Luisa

Dear Luisa:

This subject is on the list of top five insane, confusing and frustrating things about Germany for expats, especially Europeans from a Christian background. Upon registration (Anmeldung), new Berliners are asked to choose whether they are Roman Catholic, Lutheran or “other/none”. Unless you check the latter box, you’ll be automatically subjected to Kirchensteuer (the tax levied on members of the German Catholic and Lutheran churches, amounting to 9 percent of income tax).

We had heard stories about cooperation between German authorities and Nordic Lutheran churches in uncovering undeclared believers. But a recent blog post by a Frenchman about his Kirchensteuer ordeal indicates that they might be after other nationalities and Catholics too. Thomas Bores is an atheist from France who didn’t declare any religious belief to the Bürgeramt. A few months later, the Kirchensteuerstelle sent him a questionnaire about his religious affiliations. He checked “no” on every question. About 10 months later, in January 2015, Mr. Bores discovered that €500 were missing from his salary – back payment for his 2014 church tax! From now on, he was informed, he would be paying €48 in church tax per month. What followed was a demoralising journey through the various circles of hell, i.e. German bureaucracy – different branches of the Finanzamt, various church offices.

It turned out that Berlin’s Catholic archdiocese had contacted the diocese in Bores ‘home city in France, who were happy to send back written confirmation of his baptism – evidence that he did, indeed, belong to the Pope’s flock. The Finanzamt was promptly informed… leading to the back payment of church tax for the entire period since his registration in Germany.

Obviously Bores’ story is shocking on many levels. But more importantly, how does a baptised foreigner who doesn’t want to pay Kirchensteuer get out of it? There’s only one way: leaving the church (Kirchenaustritt). This is not especially simple. You’ll need to go to your local Amtsgericht (administrative court) with your passport and Meldebescheinigung (proof of registration), and pay a €30 fee (you didn’t think you were getting out without bleeding a little, did you?). You’ll get a slip of paper (Kirchenaustrittsbescheinigung) which you can bring to your Finanzamt so that you no longer have you pay the tax.

Whether or not leaving the church in Germany really means you are actually leaving the church in your home country is a grey area, too complicated to talk about here, but some online comments by foreign Catholics suggest that “only the Vatican has ultimate authority over such matters”.

As it stands now, baptised foreigners who “lied” about their religious affiliation when they registered and have never paid church tax for years in Germany could theoretically be asked to pay up to four years of back taxes if “discovered”. Luisa, you’re probably asking yourself if Germany works in cahoots with the Italian Catholic church when it comes to investigating baptism status. I have not heard of any such case to date, but Exberliner will investigate further and keep you updated on this scandalous, urgent matter.

Originally published in issue #136, April 2015.