Norway's Catholic Church Fined for Adding Fake Members by Taking Names From Phone Book

The Roman Catholic Church in Norway has reportedly been fined $140,000 for exaggerating its membership numbers with names from the phone book in order to receive state financial aid.

(Photo: Reuters/Torstein Boe/NTB Scanpix)A memorial service is held at Oslo Cathedral, as Norway marked the fourth anniversary of the 2011 attacks, in Oslo, Norway, July 22, 2015. Norway marked the fourth anniversary of the bombing of government buildings in Oslo, and shooting at the Labor Party youth camp on Utoeya island, killing in total 77 people.

The Diocese of Oslo denied having intentionally lied about membership numbers, but admitted that there were mistakes made in the past.

"We've never done anything illegal or received too much money," the Catholic Church said in an official response, as reported by the Local.

"We have always recognized that we have made mistakes and an unfortunate practice in parts of our registration. This was cleaned up a long [time] ago."

Prosecutors said the church's chief administrative officer, Thuan cong Pham, has been charged with aggravated fraud, however, and accused the church of going through phone books between 2011 and 2014 to add immigrants with names suggesting they were from Catholic countries to their membership rolls. 

Many who found themselves on the list were not even aware that church officials had done so, prosecutors said.

State officials claim the Oslo diocese was able to obtain undue government subsidies because of the falsehoods surrounding the size of its membership.

According to Crux, the Catholic Church in Norway has been in trouble with state officials before, and in February 2015 Bishop Bernt Ivar Eidsvig of Oslo was accused of membership inflation.

Catholics are a minority in Norway, with national statistics showing that only about 145,000 officially belong as members to the Catholic Church.

If the fine imposed by government officials is not paid, the Catholic Church will have to face a trial, reports added.

Christianity in Norway, along with other Scandinavian countries, has been seeing a decline in recent years, with the Lutheran Church, Norway's official state religion, experiencing a dramatic drop in numbers after it created a way for members to deregister online.

The Christian Post reported back in August that over 15,000 members left the Lutheran Church within the first four days after the website was put up.

Church council leader Kristin Gunleiksrud Raaum explained that the move was made in order for the church to become more transparent, and said that it will continue allowing easy dereigstration.

"We will continue to have a broad and open national church. But no one should be a member of a religious community against their will, and therefore I am glad that this self-solution is in place. Those who mistakenly listed as a member of the Norwegian Church or who do not wish to be members can now easily change their status, and it will give us a more accurate registry," Raaum said in an interview with AFP

Director Jens-Petter Johnsen of the Church Council further added that the exodus of members likely concerned those who had decided to leave the Church a long time ago, but had not yet made their decision official.

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