Samoa church in standoff with PM as pastors refuse to pay income tax

Ministers for Samoa's Congregational Christian Church, whose churches include the pictured Jubilee Church in Malua, live off donations. These taxes are soon to be taxed as income, which the church says it will flout. Picture: Tipi Autagavaia

APIA – Samoa’s prime minister has locked horns with the country’s largest church after its pastors agreed not to pay income tax when a new law kicks in next month.

Under the law, which was passed by parliament last year but doesn’t come into effect until 1 July, church ministers and the country’s Head of State will have to pay income tax for the first time.

The Catholic Church and the Methodist Church have said that they accept the law and that their ministers will pay the tax. The Head of State will also pay.

But at a recent general assembly, the leaders of the Congregational Christian Church said they would flout the law, arguing that the payment of income tax goes against their faith.

The Congregational Church is Samoa’s largest, with 29 percent of Samoans identifying with it, according to the 2016 census, giving it a certain degree of societal heft – although no real legal authority – in a deeply religious country.

But the church’s general secretary, Reverend Vavatau Taufao, said the new law was seen by the assembly as an affront to their beliefs because many pastors lived off donations.

“Our church ministers totally depend on donations from the parishioners,” said Reverend Taufao. “So it depends how much they donate. If they donate a dollar, [then] that’s all, that’s it. We believe those donations shouldn’t be taxed.”

RNZ Pacific’s correspondent in Apia, Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia, said while the pastors did indeed live off donations, many ministers lived quite comfortably on much more than the average Samoan.

“For example, in another village a church minister every two weeks, they’re earning six thousand tala – round about US$3,000 a fortnight,” he said. “For one month’s over 10 grand.”

Reverend Taufao, though, said that while some pastors did earn decent money from donations, others – particularly in more remote areas – earned little. So therefore, it was unfair that they should be taxed.

Besides, he argued, a donation is what someone was willing to offer as a gift or sentiment to their minister. “From the heart,” he said, adding that other such donations to other organisations are not taxed in Samoa.

But the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, has not held back in his criticism of the church.

Samoa’s PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi says no exceptions will be made for the church.

In a speech in parliament, Tuilaepa hit out at some pastors lives of opulence. He said ministers were driving flashy vehicles on the roads creating traffic jams, but were not willing to contribute to building and fixing the roads on which they drove.

In a later speech, Tuilaepa went further: “This is a very shallow assessment made by just as shallow people,” he said. “Why? It is because God appoints the country’s leaders to lead a government founded on him.”

As the verbal tit-for-tat unfolded, the church didn’t pull its punches either.

Following the general assembly, a senior church minister was quoted by the Samoa Observer as saying the law could be the beginning of the “downfall” of the Tuilaepa government, which has been going strong for more than 20 years and holds a commanding majority in parliament.

Reverend Taufao, in an interview, was more reserved in his words – but he still maintained that the pastors would not be paying tax.

“The government has to understand that the church has its own policies,” he said.

But these policies do not reign supreme over Samoa law, so come 1 July the authorities are likely to come knocking if the ministers continue to refuse. The Ministry of Revenue has already issued a notice – directed at church ministers – to say that the law will be enforced.

To that, Reverend Taufao was unrepentant. “How much do we have to compromise our faith to abide in laws that are not fairly designed?” he asked.

But the prime minister has rubbished any suggestion that the laws were unfairly designed, instead arguing the complete opposite.

“There will be no further negotiations … for the government to reconsider its position on this issue because due process prescribed by law was exhausted by parliament before the law was approved,” Tuilaepa told parliament. “And the law applies to everyone without preferential treatment.”

How much do we have to compromise our faith? Reverend Vavatau Taufao.

While Tuilaepa is right that the law has already passed through parliament and that it trumps the church’s policy, the church does hold considerable sway in Samoa – particularly the Congregational Christian Church, which was one of the first to establish and ensconce itself within Fa’a Samoa.

And with that, Autagavaia said the church has gathered some sympathy, with theological debates firing up at marketplaces, on radio programmes and in the opinion and letter columns of the country’s newspapers.

Many agree that ministers should contribute to healthcare and infrastructure, Autagavaia said, quoting Bible verses to support that view. But many others are also arguing that donations to ministers are sacrosanct, also quoting Bible verses to support that view.

“There’s a lot of division with people’s thoughts,” said Autagavaia. “There are people, you know, quoting what the Bible says. There are people who’ve said that’s what’s the Bible is teaching us.

“But, you know, the reality of the life that we’re living, we have a government who make regulations and rules for people to follow,” he said.

Reverend Taufao said the church’s leaders planned to meet with the Prime Minister when he returned to the country this week in the hope of reaching a resolution before the law kicks in.

But with neither side willing to back down, that seems unlikely.

More Stories