Jogye Order makes public temple revenues, pledges transparency

In the wake of a new law, South Korea’s largest religious denomination makes public for the first time its revenues. Last year, its two largest temples had a combined revenue of about 40 billion won (US$ 36 million). In the media, the decision was praised. The Catholic Church is cited as an example to follow.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – The Jogye Order, South Korea’s largest Buddhist denomination, has disclosed the finances of its four largest temples. Its goal is to enhance the transparency of religious organisations and boost overall public confidence in religion.

The Order’s two largest, Bongeunsa Temple in south Seoul and Jogyesa Temple in central Seoul, had revenues totalling 21.09 billion won (.3 million) and 20.05 billion won (US$ 17.4 million) respectively, last year.

The decision to make public temple revenues is a break with the past. However, it comes at a time when the Order is mired in financial and sex scandals involving some of its monks, something that has driven away many members.

Buddhism is South Korea’s largest religion. An estimated 20 of South Korea’s 48 million people are Buddhist. Although there are no definitive figures, most Buddhists are members of the Jogye Order. However, its membership appears to be declining. Another 26 per cent of the South Korean population is Christian, 11 per cent Catholic.

“The disclosure of the finances of the major temples,” writes the Korea Herald in an editorial, “was made in line with the order’s self-reform measures, which was announced by its head, Ven. Jaseung one year ago.” However, “Buddhists lag behind other religious groups like the Roman Catholic Church as far as financial transparency is concerned.”

However praiseworthy this decision is, it is important to note that the Order had little choice. In December 2015, the South Korean parliament adopted a law that requires organised religions and clergy to pay taxes.

Under the new legislation, which comes into effect in 2018, those who earn up to 40 million won per year (US$ 34,000) will pay 20 per cent, whilst those who exceed 150 million won (US$ 130,000) will pay 80 per cent.

Property taxes remain unclear. Buildings will have to pay a single fee but if they include commercial activities, they might be classified as businesses.

South Korea has about 360,000 clerics, mostly Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist. Under the new law, their wages will be classified as "religious salary," and not as it is currently the case, as a tax-free fee.

Conservative Protestants have opposed the changes, noting that taxing religious workers means turning Masses, rites and celebrations into commercial activities.

Among Catholics, diocesan priests have been voluntarily paying 10 per cent of their earnings to the state since the mid-1990s, following a directive issued by the much-regretted late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan.

Many point out that the vehement protests by Protestants lie more with clergymen’s extra-religious activities than with their salaries.

In recent years, a series of scandals have hit several Protestant mega-churches, especially in Seoul, because of links with business interests, including the music industry.