Starting religious group--what is the law?

I’m interested in starting a religious group. Do I need government permission to

  • hold religious meetings
  • do missionary work, without a missionary visa
  • accept donations

I notice about twenty religious groups–ranging from “Islam” to “T’ien Ti Chiao” ("Heaven Emperor Religion, a local religion) have received official recognition from the government. Is this required? Is it beneficial? What are the requirements for adding a new group if one’s religion is not on the list (or mistrusts the chosen representatives for it)?

I have heard of several religious groups being harassed by the government, such as the Moonies (for something to do with sex or marriage) and another local religion (whose founder was accused of cheating members out of money). Are there any laws determining when a religion can or can’t be harassed here? If so, what are they?

And what is the legal status of things like astrology or faith-healing (chi-gong), which seem to be related to religion? Are there restrictions on these?

Thank you very much,

The primary reason why you would want to be “registered” as some sort of recognized social entity would be for taxes. In other words, as a registered entity, when people make a donation to you, you can then give them an official receipt and they can deduct that amount from their income taxes. Additionally, you could open bank accounts in the name of this “registered” organization.

Suppose that someone like yourself wrote a book of religious teachings, had it published locally at a cost of NT$ 150 per copy, and then sold it to anyone who was interested for NT$ 250 per copy. There is nothing technically wrong with that.

As a foreigner of course, you are going to run into two problems in any and all endeavors: (1) you have to have a valid visa doing something which the government approves of, (2) you have to be able to show a reasonable level of income to the tax authorities.

Since yours is not an approved missionary organization, obviously you will have to get your visa some other way. If you live from hand to mouth and devote all your energies to missionary work, with the resultant lack of income, the tax authorities probably won’t believe it, and they will assess you additional taxes.

And thank you again, Richard! I must say, you seem very knowledgeable about Taiwanese legal matters. You’re a human rights activist here, I believe?

A general legal principle is that just because my religion says I can or should do something, doesn’t mean the government will let me. Anything to do with visas, finances, or marriage will come under secular laws. (As a rare concession there is a “missionary” visa, but it is designed for religious bodies which already have a well-established presence here, not struggling new ones which want to do first-generation missionary work.)

A ministerial friend tells me that one of the reasons to formally register is so the group can hold bank accounts in its own name. That way if somebody donates money “for the cause,” it doesn’t have to pass through my private accounts–which (a) looks bad, and (b) might make the tax people think I’m richer than I am! I don’t believe the tax code here allows deductions for them, though.

There are apparently three different ways to register, all of which require money and/or minimum numbers of registered believers. The list of twenty religions (as opposed to religious bodies–think “Christianity” instead of “X Baptist church”) seems to be entirely at the discretion of the government. As far as I know it carries no definite advantage except prestige for being written up in the government book on ROC Religion.

But my major concern is that the government may crack down on me for holding religious meetings (since as a foreigner I have no rights), if they disapprove of anything they think we’re doing. Do you happen to know about laws covering the most basic form of religious freedom? I believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses had problems because they are pacifists, and were therefore deemed a negative social influence (because of military conscription). And I already mentioned the Moonies, though that was a long time ago.

The chi-gong movement had a big crackdown a few years ago, mainly because some of them were claiming to do things like cure cancer and AIDS. Apparently that’s illegal–but then, what about charismatics? Maybe the illegal thing was that the chigong people did it for money?

One more thing. The “valid visa” problem–if I have a visa for one purpose but do something that another visa is given for, sometimes this is okay (you can study while you work) and sometimes not (but you can’t work while you study). So, if I do something which is perceived as missionary work, while not on a missionary visa, am I expellable? I note that musicians have been kicked out for performing (working) for free.

In terms of religious freedom, one could say that among other considerations it contains the important elements of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Unfortunately, due to the NPA’s interpretation of a (long term) foreigner having a “purpose of residency” or for a (short term) foreigner having a “purpose of stay”, the Police are free to decide if any activity violates this idea after the fact, and then deport you, without a hearing. Hence, in a real sense, foreigners do not have freedom of speech or freedom of assembly here. In other words, you only have these freedoms to the extent that someone does not object to what you are doing (with a determination of that to be made after the fact.) At the present time I am considering various legal options to challenge this entire formulation.

In terms of a musician, if he/she had an Article 51.01.01, 51.01.02, 51.01.04, or 51.01.05 “personal work permit” there should be no problem in performing for free or for a fee or whatever.

You are advised to stay away from anything that smacks of medical treatment, since that is limited to licensed doctors, and violations are criminal offenses. You can be charged by the District Prosecutor based on anyone’s complaint.

There was a woman whom was charged a few years ago whom was a spiritual healer and a quack for claiming she could heal anything just about. But then there are noted religions which do practice spiritual healing and are tolerated in Taiwan and elsewhere. If your “charismatics” following is a part of a mainstream demonination, I do not believe you’d have a lot of red-tape for a missionary status. However, a one man church is a new effort and might be challenged or ridiculed by the disrespectful. One issue I discovered with the Falun Gong movement is their religious doctrine has a strong disdain for the practices of organized religion and is thus “unregistered” as a nonprofit organization. This and the stigma of spiritual healing and implied criminality of the PRC compounded their unorganized movement. Their use of “RICO” lawsuits also turned the tables on the PRC as a criminal enterprise. That is two or more people created an unofficial organization to engage in criminal activity against an unorganized religious group during a period of China WTO pressures and when the China lobby was steamrolling Falun Gong with anti-cult labels in both domestic and int’l press. That is AIG and Loral stakeholders were actually implicated in a Xinhua News conspiracy since 1998 but Falun Gong was reluctant to sue these NYSE-listed companies as conspirators to the PRC “cult” conspiracy and WTO. American corporate corruption goes uninvestigated despite some seriously questionable actuarial accounting by AIG and their Chinese privileges from this religious persecution for a quid proquo. Loral Communications was implicated in a serious case in Taiwan-based shortwave stations contracted for Falun Gong broadcast and termination was legally based upon “illegal status” by the PRC. The American executive was based out of Singapore and was conspiring to shut down “illegal broadcasts” from Taiwan. Such is a civil rights lawsuit just waiting to potentially happen as they are caught redhanded. But then the US State Dept just goes so easy on them when they sell out national security secrets to the PRC that one questions their commitment to their duties in the US Constitution.

Interestingly, there is no organizational or registration barriers to being a “church” within the American meaning of the First Amendment. And even the IRS officially acknowledges this freedom from registeration as a “church” but a group of 12 people must meet their definition of weekly meetings for two years. Also their distinct doctrine and practice must be coherent and consistent within their religious intentions of being a tax-free “one man churches”. Even the athiests are a “religion” within meaning of religious freedoms and are constitutionally protected.

I would assume that the law in Taiwan is somewhat similar.