Mr Godwin Kojo Koranteng, Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Peace Building, has suggested the need for a religious watchdog bureau, to help Christian organizations to demonstrate transparency with regards to their finances.
“It is relevant at this age and time in our country to have a religious watchdog bureau that should work in collaboration with government to investigate and report on religious non-profit organization abuses, he told the Ghana News Agency in an interview in Accra on Thursday.
“The bureau will seek to unearth if these organizations are abusing the non-profit tax status. In some cases or events today, it is difficult if not impossible to tell the not-for-profit from the individual person’s piggy bank or from the profit entity.
“Religious fraud is a growing problem in our country today, that it seems more monies are stolen in the name of God than in any other way,” he noted.
Mr Koranteng, also a lawyer said the usual government oversight procedures have not been able to keep up to expectation.
He said: “Unfortunately for the public, many of the huge religious organizations legally disguise as churches –literally disguise as in invisible funds, no accountability whatsoever.”
He said churches do not have to file their returns showing their top salaries and where the money goes.
“And even as the problem increases, many media outlets across the country have reduced or not reported at all on this issue, allowing most of these abuses to continue unreported.”
The Lawyer explained that the bureau focus has to do with exposing these abusive behaviors and also be active with authority in trying to right some of the wrongs it would discover.
He claimed that the religious bodies have totally neglected the needy in the society and rather exploiting them to the benefit of their leaders and their families.
He quoted the Mail Newspaper in the UK that a church run by a controversial multi-millionaire African Preacher was accused of “cynical exploitation’’ after its British branch received 16.7 million pounds donations from followers who were told that God would give them riches in return.
In 2004, Charity Commission of the United Kingdom investigated some churches including the well-known church headed by the African.
The Commission reported concerns about the Church’s management and ordered a team of professional advisors from KPMG, to take over the running of the church as “receivers and managers”.
The outcome of the Commission’s work was highly recommended and admirable.
“Most churches in our country today are making clearly spurious claims and it seems to be cynical exploitation of the gullible.
“What is alarming is the reported violence and the lack of respect for the status of the congregants. It is taken us back to the previous age of ignorance and prejudice that we all thought the church has escaped.
“Leaders of most churches today convince their followers to patronize the sale of special anointing oils, holy water handkerchiefs and other odd items.
“Some leaders openly charge followers consultation fees to have a chat with them, which is purely a commercial activity but enjoying tax exemptions in the name of God apart from the offerings, tithes and now a new terminology ‘sowing seed’.”
He said the tax exemption for churches could be traced back to the Roman Empire when Emperor Constantine (307-337) granted the Christian church a complete exemption from all forms of taxation after his conversion to Christianity circa 312.
Church property was also taxed exempt in Medieval England, on the theory that the church was doing the work the State would have had to do and should get something for its troubles.
‘’Evidently the exemptions is made in recognition of the benefits, which the public derives from church activities, “says Mr Koranteng.
He observed that giving churches special tax breaks the separation of the Church and the State.
He said when the country is on the brink of going broke, the churches and other tax exempt entities ought to be merciful and help financially.
“It’s worth nothing that, most religious organisations are not turning around and giving money to the poor in the society.
“Most people do not know how the religious exemptions work, or what they are worth. No one has really tried to calculate it. Just putting it on the radar is worth doing even if it’s not going to change policies in the short run. In the long run I think it will.
“In Ghana today, there is the need for a commission to investigate and right the wrongs and fraud in our churches before it gets out of hand. A word to a wise is enough,” he said.