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‘My thoughts on religious tourism were misrepresented’

The comment entitled, Churches’ duty exemption on cars ill-advised on the Comment and Analysis page of The Standard July 27 to August 2 2014, was a highly damaging distortion of my statements on religious tourism and the churches’ role in the sector.

Sunday View with Walter Mzembi

What I said and clearly meant to any person of goodwill, is that churches, to the extent that they operate tourism businesses, will benefit from all the incentives that are on offer to spur tourism growth.

If they run restaurants, conference facilities, vehicle rental services or offer any other travel and tourism service, they will, like any other tourism operator, benefit from tax breaks we offer operators in the sector.

They will benefit not because they are churches but because they operate businesses that offer tourism services. Indeed I have also said in the past that they should also pay taxes on whatever business earnings they make.

My point, which some media houses seem unable, or unwilling to appreciate, is that church business should be taxed and incentivised just like any other business.

Religious tourism is not just “so-called” as was put in the comment in question, it is a real economic activity raking in billions of dollars globally. It means travel and tourism related to religion, and is quite distinguishable from other forms of tourism. The church is not a business in the strict commercial meaning of “business” but it can own a business.

Bishops, prophets and pastors, will continue to pay relevant taxes, levies and duties on what they earn or purchase. The rule is very simple and well-understood by all Bible-based religious groups, “give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar”.

I agree that this incentive, like any other, can be abused and government will have to put in place measures to ensure that this is not the case.

However, we cannot stop giving incentives where this will benefit the national interest because we fear that they may be abused. If “enterprising” persons form churches solely for the purpose of doing business, surely such churches will not last, and they will open themselves to prosecution.

The issue of some prophets and pastors having lavish lifestyles is a different one altogether and need to be tackled as such.

In my speech, I emphasised the point that my decision, was “reciprocal”. I said, “Our modern day temples and their associated visions have inspired tourism and hospitality defined businesses in the form of conference facilities, transport SBUs, television stations, accommodation and restaurant and cuisine entities which my ministry licenses.

In reciprocation and in line with my vision, to grow church or faith-based or inspired business, I have extended the provisions of Statutory Instruments 172 and 173 dealing with duty free capital goods and motor vehicle importations to the church and its sector”.

I hope this clarifies my thoughts on this matter.

Walter Mzembi is the minister of Tourism.

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