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Will Japan Soon Be on Special Watch List?

Katrina Lantos Swett

Former Chair of US Commission on International Religious Freedom mentions Japan together with Countries of Particular Concern and Countries on Special Watch List

The Global Forecast for Religious Freedom – Stormy Skies Ahead

A speech by Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos foundation for Human Rights and Justice and past chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. The speech was given 12th April 2024, the second day of an international online 3-day conference on “Peace and Public Leadership: Addressing the Challenges of Our Times”, organized by HJ International Graduate School for Peace and Public Leadership, New York, USA.

I am truly honored to be participating in this important event and with such distinguished panelists and moderators.

The topic of my portion of this session is “Stormy Skies Ahead”. And actually, as I sit here with you today and look out my window, we are having a pretty major storm in New Hampshire, where I live. So it looks like Mother Nature is on board, supporting my thesis.

But why this ominous forecast? I think one would have to say that the facts on the ground show that huge numbers of the world’s population in fact live in countries where religious freedom is significantly – and in many cases –egregiously constrained. China, Nigeria, Iran, Russia, North Korea, to name just a few.

Countries of particular concern (CPCs)

Seal of USCIRF
Public domain image

The annual reports of USCIRF, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which as you mentioned, Dr. Mickler [Dr. Michael Mickler, Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies, HJI, and moderator of Session V of the conference] I had the honor of serving on, demonstrate that there are a lot of very big and very significant nations that have been designated as CPC’s, or “Countries of Particular Concern”.

And why are they designated as CPC’s? Because they engage in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. In fact, there are 17 countries that have been so designated in the most recent report of USCIRF.

Special watch list

Furthermore, there are an additional eleven countries on what’s called the Special Watch List, which means that they meet two of those three criteria of systematic, ongoing religious freedom abuses. So it’s a pretty grim picture.

USCIRF CPCs and Special Watch List
A map indicating countries designated by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) or for inclusion on the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL). From USCIRF 2023 Annual Report. Dark blue indicates CPC, light blue SWL. Illustration: Fish nr / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC ASA 4.0 Int. Cropped

And of course, when you factor in countries like China, like Nigeria, the sheer numbers that you’re talking about of world citizens who face this kind of repressive environment is really quite sobering.

Now, these threats come in a variety of forms. You have, of course, the pervasive state-generated oppression in communist countries, notably places like China and North Korea, where all religious communities are suppressed. All religion is viewed as a dangerous threat to the state control and the “permitted faiths” – and I use that in quotes – are all under the strict control of the government.

This is where we see the severe persecution of whole communities, groups like the Uyghur communities in the Xinjiang region of China. And in fact, the treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government has been designated as a genocide. The Falun Gong practitioners, the house church movement, all of these come under severe, severe repression.

On the opposite pole, you have brutally repressive theocracies – countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, where the state-imposed religious order crushes any threat to its religious hegemony, and the government imposes its religious rules on the entire society.

Then we have the interesting case of countries like India, the world’s largest democracy, where a rising ethno-religious nationalism has led to increasingly problematic laws and practices, and where the environment has frankly become increasingly threatening for religious minorities.

Non-state actors terrorizing religious minorities

We have another category, countries where the governments have been unwilling or unable – or in some cases both unwilling and unable – to quell non-state actors who engage in violence and terror against religious minorities, or against those they perceive as threats to their dominance.

Demonstration against Boko Haram
Demonstration in Nigeria demanding the rescue of the 276 Chibok girls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014. Photo: Suleiman.bako1982 / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC ASA 4.0 Int. Cropped

A clear example of this kind of threatening environment for religious freedom would be Nigeria, where the terror group Boko Haram has been responsible over the past decade or so for some 50,000 deaths, and two and a half million people displaced. And some of the really high-profile atrocities have been the kidnapping of schoolgirls, kidnapped, raped, and forcibly converted and married off.

I’ve always been interested in the origin of terms and names and the etymology behind things. Boko Haram, the name of this well known, widely known terror group, actually translates as “Western education is forbidden”.

And so it gives you a sense of just how antithetical a group like this is, not only to freedom of religion, but any notions of the pursuit of knowledge independently.

Majority faith serving the government

Another category we can look at where we see this very threatening landscape for religious freedom are countries like Russia, where an authoritarian government has co-opted and corrupted the social influence and credibility of the majority faith to serve the government’s goals.

I’m thinking, of course, of the way the Russian Orthodox Church has really been drafted, you might say conscripted, to defend and to advocate and to bless Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

And we have seen this lead to a very profound break between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. For a long period of time, the Ukrainian Orthodox patriarch was under the umbrella of the Russian orthodox patriarchy.

But given this, what is certainly perceived by the Ukrainians as this corruption of the church to serve the ends of the state, we see a break emerging there.

Nicaragua

Finally – and this is by no means a comprehensive list, but I hope it gives you a sense of the landscape and the reason for that stormy skies broadcast – we have countries like Nicaragua, where there has been a slow erosion of democracy, and then suddenly you wake up and recognize that it’s gone.

The Sun Also Rises
Cover of the book The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (from its 1954 reprint). Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image

It reminds me of the famous little mini quote from Ernest Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises”, where one of the characters is asked how he went bankrupt. And his answer is, “Gradually, and then suddenly.” And that’s what we’ve seen in Nicaragua.

I think another analogy, that some of you in our listening audience may have heard, is of the frog sitting in a pot of water. And the temperature is quite comfortable, but slowly and imperceptibly, it’s raised by one degree, one degree, one degree. The frog doesn’t realize the peril he’s in and eventually boils to death because of the somewhat gradual encroachment on him.

A symbol, I think, to me the most powerful symbol of this descent into dictatorship that we see in Nicaragua has been the targeting of the Catholic Church, again, because it is viewed as a threat to the authoritarian rule of the government and is viewed as a moral voice by the people of Nicaragua.

Rolando Alvarez
Archbishop Rolando Alvarez deprived of his nationality and citizenship rights and sentenced to 26 years in prison, but released after 500 days and exiled to the Vatican. Photo (2019): Ramirez 22 nic / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC ASA 4.0 Int. Cropped

And the really powerful symbol of this has been in the arrest and sentencing of the Archbishop of Nicaragua, Rolando Alvarez, sentenced to 26 years in prison because he refused to go into exile.

One tactic used by the Nicaraguan government has been basically to first arrest, harass and target their opponents and then deport them all, basically send them into exile, get them out of the country.

And Bishop Alvarez refused to do so and has been rewarded for his active conscience, not wanting to abandon his Catholic flock in Nicaragua, by a sentence of 26 years in prison.

I think that this kind of brief tour of the landscape, if you will, and the various ways and the different kinds of political systems and countries in which we see really alarming degrees of violations of religious freedom, helps to explain my forecast of stormy skies.

Japan’s assault on the Family Federation

But because we are gathered here today to talk about new religious movements [The theme of Section V of the conference was “New religious Movements and Contemporary Threats to Religious Freedom”], I think we have to take a moment to consider the case of Japan and its determined assault on the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

Now, my wonderful colleagues on the panel will address the various legal threats and attacks facing the Family Federation in greater detail, and I’m sure with more substance than I can.

But I would like to comment on how troubling, and, quite frankly, profoundly undemocratic are the multi-pronged efforts we see in Japan to dissolve and eliminate an entire belief community.

This is not how a rights-respecting and confident democracy treats minority faiths.

And Japan is perilously close to undermining its claims to be a nation that honors human rights, including, very importantly, article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

IRF panel 31st Jan. 2024
On January 31st, a panel discussion was held at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington DC, U.S.A., discussing the Japanese government’s request for the dissolution of the former Unification Church. From left to right: Suzan Johnson Cook, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; Massimo Introvigne, director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR); Jan Figel, former European Union (EU) Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief; Cole Durham, Honorary Professor at Brigham Young University Law School; and Katrina Lantos Swett, co-chair of the summit Photo: Yosuke Yamazaki.

Dr. Mickler, you referenced the International Religious Freedom Summit where I did appear on the panel where we addressed this. And at that time, I used a popular phrase in culture that friends don’t let friends drive drunk, meaning that those of us who view Japan as a democratic ally, an important counterweight to China, can’t really stay silent while a country that in many respects does a good job defending democracy, defending human rights, is going seriously, perilously close to running off the rails when it comes to their treatment of the Family Federation.

Today, I’d like to invoke another, you know, popular cultural phrase to give a sense of how I view the way Japan is behaving in its targeted attacks on the Family Federation.

You’ve all heard, and I think there might have been a movie by this title, but I have certainly heard the term or the phrase “mean girls” used to describe those people, those mean girls who take the posture that if you’re not part of the in-group, if you’re not a member of the popular clique, if you’re not one of us, then you are fair game for a really reprehensible form of social bullying, or in this case, an out and out political targeting.

It is just wrong to target a faith community in this way. And it certainly violates the spirit of the Universal Declaration‘s protection for freedom of religion, conscience, and belief.

Of course, every faith community must respect and abide by the legitimate laws of the land where they operate. But no government is justified in targeting and harassing a minority faith or whipping up public sentiment against a minority faith or new religious movement just because they think they can get away with it.

And I fear that to some degree, that is what we are seeing unfold in Japan right now. And it’s wrong. It’s morally wrong, it’s politically wrong, and ultimately it’s wrong for the health and the resiliency and the integrity of their own society.

I started out talking about stormy skies, and I think my remarks have highlighted, if you will, that gloomy forecast. But I want to say that I remain an optimist.

What my late father Tom Lantos, the only survivor of the Holocaust ever to serve in Congress, used to tell me, meant a lot to me as it was coming from a man who had experienced so much in his life. When I was alarmed or disheartened by some circumstances around me and the world, he used to say, “We are just bending a windy corner of history. But around this tough corner will be bright blue skies and wonderful possibilities.”

And I believe that.

Thank you, and I look forward to the remainder of our discussion.

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. In fact, her father, Representative Tom Lantos, is the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in the US Congress, which he did for nearly 30 years.

Dr. Lantos Swett entered Yale University at age 14 and graduated at age 18, obtained a doctorate in jurisprudence and a PhD in history.

She’s the President of the Lantos foundation for Human Rights and Justice and past Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. She co-chaired the International Religious Freedom Summit 2024 in Washington, DC earlier this year.

Featured image above: Katrina Lantos Swett at Anne Frank Awards 14th Sept. 2017 in the Embassy of the Netherlands to the United States. Photo: Stephen Voss / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC Attr 2.0 Gen. Cropped 

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