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Steffi: proof that the rich don't get to heaven

Germany's favourite daughter was doing her patriotic best this week to enhance the image of the Fatherland. Steffi Graf, small-town girl and fading tennis ace, was the real star in the delegation accompanying President Roman Herzog on his tour of the United States. That little matter of the unpaid tax bills, for which her father Peter starts the final leg of his jail sentence tomorrow, seemed forgotten.

Then came the bombshell. Steffi, so Catholic that she once had an audience with the Pope, was leaving the Church. She initially refused to be drawn on reports about her change of heart. "It's a private matter," is all she would say.

But her religious feelings were never private in the past. "Yes, I am a believer," she has said. "I pray regularly." "Has she suddenly lost her faith?" ask the German media. Or might Steffi's apostasy have something to do with her famous devotion to mammon?

Perish the thought. Surely money could never induce a person of Steffi's integrity to renounce her religion. As Steffi herself insisted this week, her decision to leave the church was "based on personal reasons".

The Catholics, it seems, have recently become aware that Ms Graf was ordered by the courts to pay DM20m (pounds 6.5m) to the German authorities. That was the sum the family had omitted to own up to in the past, landing Papa Graf in the slammer. Now the Church wants its cut - about DM1m. Steffi's accountants are reported to have tried to haggle with Christ's servants on Earth, but with little success. Ms Graf is therefore taking her business elsewhere.

Some half a million Germans veer from the path every year for the same alleged reason as Steffi: the Church Tax. Unlike most other countries, the tax first imposed by Charlemagne to finance religion is still being levied in Germany. It amounts to between 7 and 8 per cent of income tax, a snip in comparison to medieval times, but still quite a hefty sum. The average German taxpayer thus loses DM200-300 every month through PAYE. Anyone wanting to opt out must sever all connections to his or her religion.

If Steffi leaves, she will lose all fringe benefits. Catholic priests will no longer be allowed to hear her confession, and may refuse her holy communion. If she marries, the wedding can only be in church if the bridegroom is a paid-up Catholic, and even then only with special permission. When she dies, she will not get a religious funeral. Her children can be baptised, but only if the parent promises to provide them with a "Christian upbringing".

It is at this point in a heretic's life that the priest might insist on the parents returning to the flock. There are no special rates for lapsed members, but back tax is usually waived.