Table of Contents
Four prominent specialists of freedom of religion or belief—Willy Fautré, Ján Figel’, Massimo Introvigne, and Aaron Rhodes—call for an end to what increasingly appears as a witch hunt.
by Bitter Winter
Dear Prime Minister Fumio Kishida:
Dear Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi:
Dear Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology Keiko Nagaoka:
We are writing to share some pressing concerns about threats to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) that have emerged in Japan after the tragic assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
We are academics and human rights activists, each with long experience in the field of FoRB. We are also friends of Japan and admirers of its millennia-old culture and vibrant democratic institutions. Many of us counted Japan as a precious ally in international fora when we had to protest human rights and FoRB violations by totalitarian regimes.
Preliminary General Comments
First of all, we wish to introduce three general comments that are essential to appreciate our approach to the issue:
- The first is that, in our long experience of defending FoRB throughout the world, we have noticed that the rights of certain minority religions are denied by stigmatizing them as “cults.” Most academic scholars of religions have abandoned the word “cult” since the last decades of the 20th century. It has no scientific content and is only used to demonize and repress certain minorities. On December 12, 2022, reforming its previous case law, the European Court of Human Rights agreed with the mainline scholarly position, and in the decision “Tonchev and Others v. Bulgaria”stated that terms such as “cults” or those deriving from the Latin “secta” in languages other than English are “likely to have negative consequences on the exercise of religious freedom” of the members of the groups so stigmatized, and should not be used in official governmental documents. “Brainwashing” is also a category that has been discredited in the academic study of religion since the 20th century by both scholars and courts of law in the United States and several European countries. It is a pseudo-scientific concept used to reinforce the discrimination between “good” religions, which allegedly do not use brainwashing to convert their new members, and “bad” “cults,” which supposedly do. The false notion of “brainwashing” was also used to justify the criminal practice of deprogramming, where adult members of certain religious minorities were kidnapped, illegally detained, and submitted to various forms of violence until they gave up and agreed to abandon their faith.
In 1993, the United Nations Human Rights Committee adopted General Comment No. 22 to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (that Japan has signed and ratified), which deals with FoRB.
Section 2 of General Comment no. 22 states that in Article 18, “The terms ‘belief’ and ‘religion’ are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility.” This is a key point. Majority and popular religions are protected by their own popularity. Article 18 call states to also protect those minority religions that, for whatever reasons, a part of the population may view with hostility.
- A second preliminary comment is that, when attacking minority religions, their opponents and the media often rely on “apostate” ex-members. “Apostate” is not a derogatory term but a technical category introduced by David Bromley and other leading sociologists to identify the minority of ex-members who turn into militant opponents of the groups they have left. “Apostate” is not a synonym of “ex-members.” Most ex-members are not apostates nor are they interested in crusades against their former religious movements. While human suffering should always be respected, and apostate accounts should not be ignored, scholars have repeatedly warned that apostates have an agenda, are not representatives of the majority of former members of a religion, and their narratives tell us more about their feelings and the ideology they have adopted than about the reality of their former movements.
- A third preliminary comment is that, in our secular societies, there is a widespread hostility to religious groups whose members are active in politics. While separation of religion and the state is an important democratic principle, it is also important to affirm that religionists have no less rights than any other citizens to participate in the political life of their nations. We should also be aware that criticism of certain religious minorities is often proposed for political reasons, and hides a political agenda under the narratives of “cult” and “brainwashing.”
The assault on the Unification Church, now Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU)
This background is important to understand our concern about the situation of the Unification Church (UC), now called Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU) in Japan, and the campaign aimed at removing its status as a religious corporation. The UC/FFWPU is a stereotypical example of a religious organization targeted by anti-cultists as a “cult” using “brainwashing.”
In Japan, the assault against the UC/FFWPU has been led since 1987 by the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales. There is a significant journalistic and scholarly literature demonstrating that most of the lawyers who established the Network were politically motivated. They wanted to punish the UC and another organization established by the same founder, the International Federation for Victory over Communism, for its anti-Communist activities and its effective support to anti-Communist and conservative politicians.
The question of “spiritual sales”
“Spiritual sales” was a label coined by the opponents of the UC to criticize the sale of certain artifacts, believed to bring spiritual advantages to the buyers, at prices significantly higher than their material value. In fact, the UC as an organization never engaged in such sales. Some of its members did. The UC took measures against abuses in this field and, after the so-called “Declaration of Compliance” of 2009, these sales by UC members substantially stopped. Before the assassination of Shinzo Abe, the number of complaints had decreased to a handful per year, and these sales might be considered a problem of the past. The UC/FFWPU was never found guilty of any criminal wrongdoing in this or other respects, and the conditions justifying an action to remove its religious corporation status are simply not there.
The almost defunct campaign against “spiritual sales” was resurrected after the Abe assassination. Simple donations, normal in all religious groups, were called “non-material spiritual sales,” a strange and self-contradictory concept.
Abusive deprogramming of Church members
Absent in the discussion was, however, a much more serious crime, deprogramming. This obnoxious and criminal practice was actively supported by anti-UC lawyers and continued in Japan from the 1970s to the Supreme Court decision of 2015 on the case of Toru Goto, a UC believer who was detained by his family and the deprogrammers for more than twelve years. The enormous amount of violence and suffering involved in deprogramming should always be considered when trying to understand the harsh relationships between the UC/FFWPU and its opponents in Japan.
Role of apostates in agitation against the Church; Failure of the British Government’s case against the Church
As in other similar cases, the campaign against the UC/FFWPU relies heavily on a few apostate ex-members. One goes under the pseudonym “Sayuri Ogawa” and has been heavily promoted by the anti-UC Network and even introduced to Japan’s Prime Minister. As it has happened with other apostates, in its crucial and essential points her story is demonstrably false, as revealed both by the international FoRB magazine Bitter Winter (a specialized publication that had more than 200 of its articles quoted as reliable sources in the yearly U.S. Department of State reports on freedom of religion of the last four years) and by award-winning Japanese journalist Masumi Fukuda.
This is not a matter of opinion. Ogawa’s parents have submitted dozens of documents proving that their daughter’s story is false. We respectfully suggest that they should have been heard by the Prime Minister and other Japanese authorities as well, as their story is backed by substantial evidence and there is no reason to consider it prejudicially as less true than the one told by Sayuri Ogawa.
In a significant precedent, the British Government was unwise enough to base almost its whole case for the removal of the “charitable status” (very similar to Religious Corporation Status in Japan) from The Unification Church in the United Kingdom, which it launched in 1984, at the behest of the “anti-cult movement,” on the testimonies of “apostates” from the Church. Many of them had been subjected to having their faith forcibly broken by professional “deprogrammers,” and the great majority of them had been influenced by the anti-cult movement in the United Kingdom or in the USA. When this phenomenon was exposed by lawyers representing the Church, the government’s case collapsed, and it was forced to withdraw it entirely and to pay the equivalent at today’s prices of over USD 6 million in costs. The case also put an end to cooperation between the British government and anti-cultists and led to the decision to cooperate instead with academic scholars of new religious movements through an organization called INFORM.
Relying on apostates such as Ogawa is an example of dubious procedural practices or even respect for natural justice that are of deep concern in this case. It seems to us that testimonies hostile to the UC/FFWPU are systematically privileged, that militant opponents of the religious movement are included in official commissions dealing with it, and different opinions and testimonies are not seriously considered.
Threat to the Church’s right to self-organize
We are also concerned about measures introduced in the field of donations to religions and the religious education of children that put at risk the right, not only of the FFWPU but of other groups as well, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to self-organize themselves as they deem fit and living according to their spiritual principles. The fact that they may be different from those of the majority does not mean that they should be less protected in a democratic state. FoRB is only affirmed when it is guaranteed to the less popular groups and those that have a significant number of opponents.
The liquidation of the FFWPU would expose Japan to international condemnation, and legitimate attacks on religious freedom in nondemocratic countries
The international FoRB community is watching what is happening in Japan, which represents the most serious FoRB crisis in a democratic country of our century. We hope that all organizations that support and defend FoRB in Japan and internationally would support our appeal. The liquidation of the FFWPU as a religious corporation would be a measure comparable to the actions taken against several religious minorities in China and Russia, and unprecedented in a democratic country. It would also expose Japan to considerable international criticism. What is more, should the Japanese government proceed with this action, it will give cover to assaults on religious groups by authoritarian and totalitarian states around the world, undermining efforts by international human rights institutions to protect religious liberty.
We urge the Japanese government to protect the FoRB of all religious and spiritual groups operating in Japan, including those that have powerful, well-financed, and politically motivated opponents, to withdraw all measures threatening FoRB, and to guarantee to the FFWPU as a religious corporation the peaceful exercise of its right to religious liberty.
We are most grateful for your attention to the foregoing appeal.
Mr. Willy Fautré
The Honorable Ján Figel’
Professor Massimo Introvigne
Dr. Aaron Rhodes
June 14, 2023
Identification of signatories:
Willy Fautré is former chargé de mission at the Cabinet of the Belgian Ministry of Education and at the Belgian Parliament. He is the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, an NGO based in Brussels that he founded in 1988. His organization defends human rights in general but also the rights of persons belonging to historical religions, non-traditional and new religious movements. It is apolitical and independent from any religion.
He has carried out fact-finding missions on human rights and religious freedom in more than 25 countries. He is a lecturer at various universities in the field of religious freedom and human rights. He has published many articles in university journals about relations between state and religions. He organizes conferences at the European Parliament, including on freedom of religion or belief in China. For years, he has developed religious freedom advocacy in European institutions, at the OSCE, and at the UN.
Ján Figel was EU Commissioner for Education from 2004-9 and Deputy Prime Minister of Slovakia from 2010-12 after having successfully acted as Chief Negotiator for Slovakia’s accession to the EU and been State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1989 he participated in the founding of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) in Slovakia and from 2009-16 was the party’s President. From 2012-2016 he served as a Vice president of the Slovak Parliament.
From 2016-19 he was the first-ever EU Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the EU and in that capacity was instrumental in the release of FoRB prisoners in Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan.
He is currently a member of the International Council of Experts of the International Freedom of Religion and Belief Alliance (Intergovernmental network) and a member of the International Religious Freedom Summit Global Leadership Council (a civil society-led initiative).
Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religion and the author of more than seventy books in the field published by leading academic presses. In 2011, he served as the Representative for combating racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance and discrimination of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which the United States and Canada are also participating states. From 2012 to 2015 he was the President of the Observatory of Religious Liberty created by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is the editor-in-chief of the daily magazine on religious liberty and human rights “Bitter Winter.”
Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and Senior Fellow in the Common Sense Society, an international educational network. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights from 1993-2007, and subsequently a founder of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Rhodes is the author of “The Debasement of Human Rights” (Encounter Books 2018) and numerous articles published in the “Wall Street Journal,” the “New York Times,” “Newsweek”, and other publications. Among other honors, he was made an honorary citizen of the Republic of Austria for his human rights contributions.