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Scholar Condemns Violation of Minority Rights

Cole Durham

Referring to historical example, religious freedom scholar deplores Japanese government’s infringement on minority rights

Tokyo, 27th January 2024 – Published as an article in the Japanese newspaper Sekai Nippo. Republished with permission. Translated from Japanese. Original article

Sekai Nippo points out media bias
Logo of the Sekai Nippo

The dissolution request is unjustifiable under international law. Do not repeat the mistake of the US persecution.

Interview with Cole Durham, Professor Emeritus at Brigham Young University, USA.

The Issue of the Former Unification Church as Seen by an Authority on Religious Law

By Toshiyuki Hayakawa (早川 俊行)

How are overseas religious experts viewing the Japanese government’s request for a dissolution order of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (formerly known as the Unification Church)? Cole Durham, Professor Emeritus at Brigham Young University Law School in the United States, founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which has a history of severe persecution in the United States, and an authority in religious law, recently visited Japan and granted an exclusive interview to Sekai Nippo. Interviewer: Editorial committee member Toshiyuki Hayakawa (早川 俊行)

– What are your thoughts on the Japanese government’s response regarding the former Unification Church?

Family Federation flag
The flag of the Family Federation, here waving in Japan. Photo: FFWPU

I have researched religious corporation laws in various countries and international laws protecting religion for the past 40 to 50 years. Modern Japan is a great democratic nation, and I have great respect for Japan’s concern for human rights and peacekeeping. However, I am deeply perplexed by what is happening to the former Unification Church in Japan.

As a general principle, I understand that extreme situations can arise where religious organizations themselves engage in egregious acts. However, the assassination incident involving former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was perpetrated by someone who is not a member of the faith and has no connection to the former Unification Church. This does not provide a reason to dissolve a legally recognized organization.

If they are doing their best to comply with the law, they should not be subject to dissolution procedures. They have the right to be a legal person under international law.

– How do you view the outcome of the dissolution order request trial?

I cannot say for certain what the ultimate outcome will be, but my hope is that the judicial process operates in a fair manner. This case is fueled by intense emotions triggered by the assassination incident. I hope that the courts and administrative procedures adhere to international guidelines and respect the right of the former Unification Church to maintain its status as legal person.

I have great trust in Japan’s deeply rooted democratic institutions. From my experience, Japan is a country that recognizes and protects human rights more than many others. However, Japan sometimes exhibits discomfort with minority groups. This is the true test of whether human rights are being upheld.

– Are there any similarities between the situation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which faced severe persecution in the United States, and the current situation of the former Unification Church?

Mobbing of Joseph Smith
Wood engraving depicting the tarring and feathering of Joseph Smith. On 24th March 1832, he was dragged from his bedroom in the middle of the night. His attackers strangled him, tore off his clothes, beat him, and attempted to force him to ingest poison. They then tarred and feathered his body and left him for dead. (Wikipedia) Illustration in Harper’s Magazine 1853, vol. 6. Public domain image. Cropped

The similarities date back to the 19th century. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is one of the most persecuted groups in American history. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, there were efforts to dissolve the church. The old legal entity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was dissolved by a Supreme Court decision, and much of its property was confiscated.

At the time, the church incurred the wrath of the federal government because it practiced polygamous marriage. Additionally, there were concerns that the hierarchical structure of the church was undemocratic.

However, now most people perceive this as part of the dark history of the United States. The dissolution request lawsuit was unjustified and should not have been brought, as it infringed upon both the collective rights of the church and the individual rights of its believers.

This is similar to the situation of the former Unification Church. In order for Japan to remain faithful to its democratic traditions, it is necessary to avoid situations where the rights of believers are ignored, as happened with the U.S. government.

– What is needed for the former Unification Church to be accepted in Japanese society, based on the experience of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?

There has always been a tendency for excessive reactions to new religious movements. Therefore, there is a growing interest in how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has progressed from persecution to acceptance throughout its history.

One of the steps toward acceptance is for individual believers to make society aware that they are ordinary people who abide by the law. Our church adheres to the belief of obeying the law and following the rules of the country in which we reside.

Another important aspect is humanitarian aid activities. Our church has one of the world’s leading humanitarian aid organizations and closely collaborates with other religious groups.

In other words, it means becoming “good neighbors”. However, it takes time to be accepted by society. It took us a hundred years as well.

– Unlike the United States, where religious freedom is a founding principle, its importance is not widely recognized in Japan. How do you view the importance of religious freedom in maintaining a healthy society and democracy?

Cole Durham on minority rights
Cole Durham at conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, London Oct. 2016. Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC Attr 2.0 Gen. Cropped

What I often emphasize is that freedom of religion is the oldest recognized human right internationally. In fact, many other human rights such as freedom of speech and equal protection originally stem from issues related to freedom of religion.

At the time of the founding of the United States, the idea of freedom of religion was a groundbreaking experiment that had never been attempted before. Until then, there was a tendency to believe that in order to achieve a peaceful society, it had to be religiously homogeneous. However, that was not actually the case. I have learnt that the worst that can happen is for the state to enforce a certain pattern on people.

Religious beliefs are closely tied to the core of human dignity, and when those beliefs are attacked, people become outraged and may retaliate in various ways, leading to social instability. Conversely, when religious beliefs are respected, people understand that they can live peacefully according to their beliefs and become grateful to the state and society.

After more than two centuries of experience in the United States, about two-thirds of the world’s countries have enshrined freedom of religion as one of the fundamental principles in their constitutions. Empirical evidence suggests that in countries where freedom of religion is upheld, many social goods are maximized.

Freedom of religion is like a canary in a coal mine for identifying the status of other human rights. Without freedom of religion, other human rights are also lost. Freedom of religion is the foundation of a pluralistic society and the key to maintaining stability.

Cole Durham obtained his Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Harvard Law School in 1975. From 1976, he served as a faculty member at Brigham Young University Law School, and in 2000, he became the inaugural director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at the same institution, a position he held until 2016. As an authority on religious law, he has held key positions in the advocacy of international religious freedom, including serving as a member of the Advisory Panel on Freedom of Religion or Belief for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)

Featured image above: Cole Durham, January 2024. Photo: Sekai Nippo. Published with permission.

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