Bishop Emmah Isong, an evangelist, is chairman of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Cross River State chapter. He is one cleric who does not shy from commenting on national issues no matter how delicate they might appear. Recently, at the headquarters of his church, Christian Central Chapel, Isong spoke with journalists and bared his mind on some salient issues. Correspondent Bassey Inyang was there. Excerpts:
What is your opinion about Christians that sometimes speak against the leadership of CAN?
Let me draw your attention to the fact that no Muslim anywhere in Nigeria can speak against the Sultan or an Emir even if he had made a mistake, whether in public or private sector. This can only happen in Christendom due to two reasons, the liberty we have in Christ is abused. Also when another religion wants to fight Christianity, they use their journalistic political mercenaries (they use your own people so speak against you) when you check the pedigree of the people against their leadership, it is either his brother has one interest or the other in government circles. Not all journalists are disciplined. Nobody will respect you for doing that.
What is your comment on the proposed policy that religious organisations be pay taxed?
The idea of taxing churches is an age-long debate, so I will not join issues with the delegates at the National Conference because they are only echoing the old choruses by some Nigerians who want churches and mosques to be taxed. It is, however, going to be a policy somersault if the Federal Government and other levels of government will succumb to the devil's bait to tax non-profit, charitable organization that the same government grouped together under a non-taxable section of the constitution.
It will not only amount to a show of high level of illiteracy and ignorance and uncoordinated policy direction, but will also amount to creating a legal lacuna.
Speaking from the perspective of financial expert, these are not company matters; non-profit organization registered as Non Governmental Organisations. These are organizations we beg to help build hospitals and start schools. Remember the Catholic Church and now Pentecostal Churches; the fulcrum of non-governmental organization. There are orphanages run by churches and they offer social responsibility to members. Three days in church by any person will certainly transform such a person, but putting such a man in prison for 10 years will never transform him. It is, therefore, very wrong to think of taxing churches. It is legally wrong because the legal framework of the laws establishing these organizations does not permit such.
What about the issue of buying luxury cars and aircraft, don't you think these should be addressed?
The buying of private jets by pastors and the lifestyles of some of these pastors is what is attracting this jealousy. People now notice that pastors live well and are now calling for the taxing of churches-this is sheer jealousy. These people forget that this is a profession that its practitioners were referred to as being poor as church rat, and that people who enter into it were detested. For someone like me my parents almost denounced me for becoming a pastor. Another thing they forget is that pastors live on goodwill. For instance, if I travel to the US or any other place and someone buys me a car or jet, does that have anything to do with my income level? It is strictly goodwill of members and for the fact that they (members) are prospering is a fact that we are succeeding in impacting positively on them.
Someone who comes to my church as an idiot, a useless fellow or an armed robber, within 10 years, I pastor, train, love, guide and support him with transport money, then he becomes a billionaire, dealing on oil and decides to appreciate me by buying me a jet or building a house, then everybody says I should be taxed.
So you find such policy or proposition as wrong?
Yes, it will be a very wrong assessment because for correct taxation there must be accurate assessment of an income. You cannot correctly assess his income because he works by favour and divine principles. His money is not in any account. He can wake up in the morning and there is no food to eat, but in the evening somebody who pays his tax has built him 25 estates.
The ministry of an imam or pastor is one that you do not really understand how they survive, because the same church you want to tax is also assisting and helping government. But, my question is, what has government done to create an enabling environment for the churches and mosques they want to tax? Otherwise, it is tantamount to reaping from where they did not sow. It is just like abandoning your child, not paying his fees, not catering for her, but on the day of traditional wedding you tie wrapper to come and sit as the father and say 'I want to tax the child'. That is what the Federal Government wants to do. You have not had partnership with the churches, no impact on their income; you have not created the enabling environment. In fact some of these churches are located in areas where there are no access roads; some of these pastors are suffering for the communities they are domicile, feeding women, people and so on.
What is it like in your church?
In my church for instance, if you are above 70 years, you are on salary till the day you die. As long as you are members of CCCI you get nothing less than N15,000; some collect N25,000 and N50,000 as long as they are members and above 70 years. Government has abandoned these elderly people and our churches are taking care of their welfare. We pay them from tithes and offerings that come to us, so when government tax us, are they going to use the tax to pay these elders and senior citizens whom the government of Nigeria has no plans for? What about orphans? Since the inception of this church, we have taken care of school fees of over 800 by our record. Orphans have benefitted school fees and scholarships, what about the widows that get wrappers, rice and hampers every December; which goes beyond this church. Is the government going to tax churches based on the big cars driven by leaders of these religious organization, are they saying they will take care of those things without knowing where it came from? My shoe could be from the President of Ghana, my suit from minister of finance in Benin Republic. How do you quantify my income, I have no salary and 90 percent of pastors do not have salaries, they live a charitable life, a life of appreciation and goodwill? As a banker by profession, I studied taxation as a course; a taxable person must be correctly assessed. You cannot hold a church for tax because at the end of the day the government will be pursuing shadows.
What happened to the leadership of PFN at the national level, it used to be more vibrant in those days?
No, it is even more vibrant now. It is just that style of leadership differs because of the personalities involved. There are many ways to kill a rat. People have different style of approaching issues. You know Papa Ayo's disposition and vocality when it comes to the political sphere. We now have Dr. Felix Omobude. There were things that papa Ayo could not do that Omobude has done and vice versa.