German Christians said to number hundreds of thousands are formally renouncing their faith and leaving the Church to escape a change in the tax laws.
Up to 400,000 Germans officially filed declarations to leave the Protestant and Catholic Church after a decision to extend the 8 or 9 per cent charge to capital gains income, The Telegraph newspaper reported.
Up to 200,000 Germans are believed to have filed official declarations last year renouncing their membership of the main Protestant church, the EKD, the highest number in almost 20 years with a similar number believed to have left the Catholic Church.
Church members in Germany are required by law to pay tax to fund church activities, which is collected by the government and is used to fund education and social services.
Under German law, anyone who was baptised as a child is automatically a member of the church and obliged to pay the tax, charged as a percentage of their income, regardless of their beliefs or whether they attend church services.
Until recently, many Christians had been prepared to pay the extra tax for the benefits it brings them, including access to church schools and day care facilities that are funded by the government.
The only way to escape paying the tax is to make a formal declaration renouncing membership of the church. This move is also levied with a government fee.
CHARGE TO CAPTIAL GAINS INCOME
The acute decline in church membership seems to have been triggered by a decision to include the 8 or 9 per cent charge in capital gains income, or the profit earned from selling an asset.
The new tax regulation was "just the straw that broke the camel's back for people who were already thinking of leaving", Ruth Levin, spokesman for the Protestant church in Disnlaken, told Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
The church tax has legally been due to capital gains for some years, but the German government recently closed an ambiguity that let many church members evade paying it due to their not being compelled to declare their capital gains income.
The newspaper reported that in the past those leaving the church had frequently been young adults renouncing their parents' beliefs, over more recently many faith renouncers are said to be pensioners not wanting to have their savings eaten into.
Leaving the Church is more than a formality. Those who decide to leave cannot be excommunicated or prevented from taking part in church services, but the decision can deny them certain rites, from a religious burial to access to the best State-funded schools.
Catholics who renounce their church membership are barred from confession and communion, and from the anointing of the sick, unless they are on the point of death.
Under the new arrangement German bank are now compelled to withhold the tax on capital gains of church member who hold accounts.
In the last reported year, some 200,000 German Protestants renounced their church membership, up from 138,100 in 2012, figures from the epd Protestant news agency cited by Die Welt newspaper. In Bavaria, the rate of faith abandonment rose by 62 per cent.
Figures for numbers leaving the Catholic Church in 2014 are not yet available, but 178,000 Catholics renounced their membership in 2013, up from 118,000 in 2012.
Some 30.8 per cent of Germans, or 24.7 million people, are Catholics