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In Germany, many Catholics can't believe what they're hearing from their bishops. The church there has issued a new decree that harks back to the Middle Ages. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, German bishops have issued this warning to their parishioners. Stop paying taxes to the church and you'll be denied the sacraments, including weddings, baptisms and funerals.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In increasingly secular Europe, Germany is one of the few countries where the state collects a special levy from its tax-registered believers and hands it over to three organized faiths. Registered Catholics, Protestants and Jews pay a surcharge of up to 9 percent on their income tax bills. The Catholic Church alone receives some $6.5 billion a year. In issuing a stringent new decree, the president of the German bishops' conference, Robert Zollitsch, said not paying taxes for the church is a grave offense and sacraments will be banned for those who distance themselves from the church.

ROBERT ZOLLITSCH: (Through translator) In Germany, the church is a community of faith, which co-exists alongside the legal system. The two cannot be separated.

POGGIOLI: The message is clear. Catholics are being told that their road to heaven requires more than faith and good intentions. If they don't pay, they're out in the cold. Both conservatives and progressives are up in arms.

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POGGIOLI: The bells announce Sunday mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Berlin's Mitte district. A few elderly women walk through the large gothic doorway, some young couples with children park their bikes in the courtyard. Not everyone is willing to talk about the bishops' decree. But one young woman, Matina Nagher, is angry.

MATINA NAGHER: Yes, I do pay church taxes. I think it's absolutely not acceptable. If you want to have sacraments, you can get them if you pay taxes or not.

POGGIOLI: A middle-aged man, Sebastian Rus, is more diplomatic. He says the church does a lot of good work for the poor and society and therefore needs money. But he cannot accept the ban on sacraments.

SEBASTIAN RUS: That's not a good decision to say, if you don't pay your tax, you have not the right to have a Christian funeral, a Catholic funeral. In my opinion, that's not good.

POGGIOLI: After three years of negotiations, the bishops' decree was approved by the Vatican. But it has unleashed a debate even among church law experts, some of whom say it raises very serious questions about justice toward the faithful. As church historian Carsten Frerk points out, setting conditions on church membership is against the church's own legal code.

CARSTEN FRERK: The church law itself has no idea of separation from the church. You cannot go out of the church under Catholic Church law because when you are baptized you are a Catholic your life long.

POGGIOLI: Christian Weisner, spokesman for the grassroots Catholic organization, We Are Church, says the bishops' decree carries a very threatening message that raises the specter of the grave sin of heresy.

CHRISTIAN WEISNER: It doesn't use the word excommunication, and actually it is not excommunication, but in fact, it is like an excommunication.

POGGIOLI: The bishops' decree was issued as church defections are growing. In 2010, when the clerical sex abuse scandal exploded in Germany, nearly 200,000 Catholics left the church. And in a normal year, it's 100,000. Church statistics show that only 13 percent of Germany's 25 million Catholics attend mass weekly. And, Christian Weisner says, the majority of those who are observant criticize the church leadership.

WEISNER: We need and we ask for more transparency and more participation in the decision-making process. It can't be the case that only the bishop is deciding which parish will get money and which parish will get a new church or so.

POGGIOLI: Like Weisner, many German Catholics are starting to resist what they see as taxation without representation. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Berlin.

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