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Religious reflection and food for thought – are some missionaries “gaming” the system?

FeaturesReligious reflection and food for thought – are some missionaries “gaming” the system?

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Mar. 20, 2023

It is the Lenten season and the approaching Easter, a time of sincere religious reflection among the various Christian denominations in Belize, and also the traditional anticipation of our Holy Saturday Cross Country Classic, the biggest one-day sporting event in our nation’s calendar, still going strong since its inaugural ride in 1928.

We will be focusing a lot more on the “Country” in the days and weeks ahead, but we feel duty bound to share with readers the contribution of a former Government of Belize Press Officer about a matter that should be of concern to all citizens, including sincere religious folks as well as government agencies charged with safeguarding the nation’s treasury and assets.

Long retired, Norris Hall wrote the following article in November of 2019, a few months before Covid and a year before the 2020 general election that saw the current PUP government taking office.

Nevertheless, what he has to say may still be relevant today. We’re not pointing fingers at anyone, and we have many dedicated souls doing service to God and their fellow men/women. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” But for those who “the cap fits,” we will let the chips fall where they may.

Are (some) missionaries “Gaming” the system?

by Norris Hall

A leading member of the clergy has expressed his concerns over what he sees as an unusual explosion of “evangelism” and the popping up of small churches all over Belize, especially in the rural communities.

Data indicates that there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of these small churches. They are required, by law, to register both as a church and as a non-government organization with the Companies Registry. But there are many un-registered churches, mainly in the immigrant and rural communities. They are mostly evangelicals and Pentecostals. These two denominations are the fastest growing in Central and South America but the Pentecostals are becoming more influential in the rural communities because of their grassroots approach to winning converts. Highly visible however, are the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are known for their assertive proselytizing. There are now over two hundred registered churches and more than one hundred registered missions in Belize.

There is also a relatively high number of registered church-related non-government organizations (NGOs) but because of poor records keeping in the Attorney General’s Ministry and the Company’s Registry, it is difficult to ascertain the type of churches and church-related NGOs among this community of “voluntary” organizations.

These NGOs are legally required to provide annual reports and accounting to the appropriate Ministry. But it appears that many don’t. There seems to be a lack of proper monitoring of their donor sources and activities as well as the churches, especially those informally established outside of the State/Church partnership. This has provided an opening for the “gaming” of the system, the evasion of taxes and the skirting of laws and regulations, including those of the Customs and Immigration Departments where reports of corruption persist. This means the possible loss of $millions in revenue to the government coffers because of the many loopholes and the lack of proper monitoring of the activities of these churches and their church-related NGOs.

Many of these unregistered churches and NGOs are flying below the radar. Small churches are sprouting up in many rural communities, apparently especially in the western part of the country in the Cayo District and in the southern regions in the Toledo district.

They appear to be sprouting up, mostly unmonitored, faster than corn growing in the rainy season along with their requisite latest model SUV, courtesy of their government tax-exempt status. It has also become evident, that in some instances, some are involved in other activities such as human smuggling, illegal immigration and the violation of the labour laws.

There have been other credible and serious allegations made against a number of these churches and so-called “charitable” NGOs.

There are reliable reports from within the government of approved tax-exempt status for which they do not qualify but which they are able to obtain due to certain political connections that allow them to game the system, hoodwinking just about every department of government in particular the Ministries of Finance, the Lands Department, Customs and Immigration. It appears that the number of tax exemptions to missionary organizations are numerous and the concessions to them can total in the $millions. There does not appear to be a structured records system within the Ministry of Finance to determine the annual cost to the government as a result of duty exemptions, other taxes, concessions and other reliefs to determine their overall impact on national development.

It would seem that the government is taking a laissez-faire position on, or moving too slowly to revisit the Church/State relationship to address the abuse of the system by these churches.

One leading clergyman has said that he has shared his concerns with senior ministers of government and other officials about the abuse of “concessions as well as land grabs” by some of these church leaders.

Some of these missionaries have also established other businesses including real estate and a so-called “religious” or “evangelical” tourism disguised as “missionary work” for tourist volunteers, without any of the requisite work permits or proper licences from the Belize Tourism Board.

Sources say that there is a weekly missionary cargo flight out of the United States with government-approved import concessions for goods such as medicines and other imports for “missionary” work. One cargo even included car tyres and sundries for a church-associated senator.

Another church import some time ago, and with the approval of the Ministry of Health, included pharmaceuticals that were later discovered to be expired medicines that slipped past the watchful eyes of Customs officials.

There are a few loosely-knit networks of “missionaries”, other church people and businesses all working together to beat the system by taking advantage of these church concessions for duty free imports for “church related” activities that turn out to be a flagrant abuse of the system, meant to assist bona-fide business activities with duty free imports including vehicles and air conditioning units.

It must be added that there are a number of bona fide missionaries and missions that are working and contributing to education, the medical and health services and social services including skills training, poverty alleviation, drug rehabilitation, and working with handicapped children.

However, there is a national concern over the “sterilization” of villages and communities with a North American right-wing Christian evangelism at the expense of the hundreds of years of the rich traditional and cultural heritage of the Belizean people.

But the mainstream churches are also failing to take the gospel to many of these rural communities and thus creating a void to be filled by other missionaries who are mainly from the United States, Europe, Africa and Central America. The clergyman, who is also a member of the Belize Council of Churches conceded the failure of the mainstream churches in working with rural communities, but he also expressed “grave concern over the new trend that could affect traditional norms and cultures”.

This trend is also seen as a subtle form of neo-colonialism, a new threat, that if not monitored, can be counter-productive to any national development strategies and in the extreme case, a subtle and very dangerous form of “dominionism” to influence or to eventually hold sway over the State.

Worldwide data varies on the number of existing Christian denominations – between 21 and 40 thousand. Because of the poor record keeping by the government, it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of churches per capita in Belize. However, a quick perusal in one area of the country alone showed six active small churches within a radius of half-a-mile. But even with proper records, Belize cannot compare with Jamaica which has the most “churches” per square mile of any country in the world with over 1,600 and counting. Without proper controls and monitoring a similar trend could be taking place in Belize. The irony is that the churches and their contribution to the solution of social problems is negligible considering the rising crime rate borne mainly out of the well spring of rising poverty and corrupt governments.

Norris Hall
9th November 2019

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