4 leading experts ask Japanese government to stop witch hunt
Four academics and human rights activists, who are leading experts on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), wrote on 14th June 2023 a letter to the Japanese government, urging it to stop the current witch hunt and protect the rights of the Unification Church / Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU), a religious minority that has been targeted by anti-cult activist lawyers. On 3rd July, Bitter Winter, the online magazine for religious liberty and human rights, published the letter.
In it the four experts – Willy Fautré, Ján Figel, Massimo Introvigne, and Aaron Rhodes – “call for an end to what increasingly appears as a witch hunt”.
The letter argues that the rights of FFWPU are denied by stigmatizing it as a “cult”, an expression used to demonize and persecute minorities. On 12th December last year, the European Court of Human Rights agreed that words like “cults” “should not be used in official governmental documents”.
Likewise, the experienced four experts, point out that the concept of “brainwashing” 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.”
Those very concepts have been used in Japan to justify thousands of cases of “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 their letter asking the Japanese government to put an end to the current witch hunt against the Family Federation, the four experts also emphasize that media and anti-religious groups often rely on statements by “apostate” ex-members in order to attack certain faiths. “Apostate” refers to a small number of ex-members who become militant crusaders against the movement they left. Scholars have, however, often warned that “apostates” have an agenda and “are not representatives of the majority of former members of a religion”. The letter written by the four scholars states,
“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 […].”
“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.”
The letter from the European scholars is addressed to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology Keiko Nagaoka. It explains that since 1987, the attacks against the Unification Church / Family Federation have been orchestrated by National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales. The letter describes the intention of those lawyers,
“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 Church 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.”
In their witch hunt, the same network of activist lawyers has been campaigning for years for the removal of the Family Federation’s religious corporation status. The four scholars point out that the conditions for such an extreme measure “are simply not there”. The religious body has never been “found guilty of any criminal wrongdoing”.
The network of lawyers has, however, actively supported the serious crime of deprogramming. The letter to the Japanese government says,
“This obnoxious and criminal practice was actively supported by anti-Unification Church lawyers and continued in Japan from the 1970s to the Supreme Court decision of 2015 on the case of Toru Goto, a Unification Church 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 […].”
The experts on religious freedom also advise the Japanese authorities to learn from a similar witch hunt case in Europe in the 1980s,
“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.”
The four European scholars urge the Japanese government to stop the witch hunt against the Family Federation and protect the freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) of all religious groups,
“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.”
Featured image above:
“Call to End Witch Hunt” – text: Knut Holdhus