U.S. Secretary of State and Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain introduce the report on June 26. Source: U.S. Department of State.

U.S. Secretary of State and Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain introduce the report on June 26. Source: U.S. Department of State.

The US Department of State Yearly Report on Religious Freedom: Exemplary on China, Timid on Japan

The report, published on June 26, 2024, confirms last year’s attitude to persuasively denounce foes but somewhat excuse political allies.

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Massimo Introvigen

(ZENIT News – Bitter Winter / Rome, 07.04.2024).- On June 26, 2024, the U.S. Department of State published its yearly Report on International Religious Freedom, concerning the year 2023. We should be grateful that such a document exists, with many high-quality sections that are small but well-written treatises on the situation of religious liberty in the countries discussed.

We at “Bitter Winter” are also grateful that our magazine is quoted almost in every page and indeed in most paragraphs discussing specific instances of violations of religious liberty in China, including Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. More importantly, we appreciate the general structure of the section on China, and of the equally persuasive sections on Russia and Pakistan, both countries “Bitter Winter” pays a special attention to.

The architecture of the part on China is convincing and even exemplary. It explains how laws and regulations on religions are constantly modified for the worse, and their enforcement by courts, administrative, authorities, and the police reinforces the repression. Laudably, the report does not only deal with the persecution of members of mainline religions, including Tibetan Buddhists, both Turkic and Hui Muslims, house church Protestants, and Catholic conscientious objectors, but emphasizes the harsh repression of groups labeled as “xie jiao” (unorthodox organizations, sometimes translated as “cults”). It reports the drama of Falun Gong, noting that, “In March, the New York City Bar Association published a report that found there was ‘ample evidence China continues to engage in forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience.’”

The detailed section about The Church of Almighty God (CAG) is worth quoting in full. The CAG “faced large-scale detention and arrest in 29 provinces, according to civil society reporting. The CAG reported that during the year [2023], the government arrested at least 12,463 individuals, compared with 10,895 arrests in 2022. Authorities sentenced at least 2,207 individuals to prison (compared with 1,901 in 2022), including 1,094 individuals who received sentences of three years or more. Authorities subjected at least 5,832 to torture or forced indoctrination. The highest number of arrests occurred in Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Shandong Provinces. According to the CAG, at least 20 members died as a result of persecution during the year. The CAG stated police subjected detainees who refused to renounce their faith to sleep deprivation for up to 10 days, being suspended with wrists handcuffed, prolonged standing or sitting, stress positions, electric shock, and beatings. According to family members, some individuals who died in custody appeared bruised, malnourished, and emaciated. According to ‘Bitter Winter,’ an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, one CAG member died three days after her arrest; police said she hanged herself but relatives viewing the body reported there were no marks from hanging on her neck and that she appeared to have head wounds. One woman, pursued by police, jumped to her death. In September, ‘Bitter Winter’ reported that early in the year, the government began a broad campaign to eliminate the CAG. Public security, national security, armed police, and special forces police carried out joint operations to arrest CAG members. Authorities reportedly surveilled church members for months or even years prior to conducting mass arrests. For example, on June 15, authorities in Zhejiang Province arrested at least 1,043 CAG members. Authorities transferred some of those arrested to reeducation centers or black sites where they subjected church members to physical and psychological torture and forced ‘deprogramming.’ One Anhui Province public security officer told ‘Bitter Winter,’ ‘This is a nationwide, coordinated purge; our focus this year is on cracking down on The Church of Almighty God.’ One officer reportedly told a detainee during interrogation, ‘This time, we’re uprooting leaders from regions down to smaller districts, and then to local churches, and the intensity of the strike will continue to increase.’”

The report also deserves credit for confirming that “Sinicization” of all religions does not mean adapting to Chinese culture and traditions but bringing “all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, which included requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions [and] suggesting content for sermons that emphasized loyalty to the CCP and the state.” More generally, “the government maintained a near-ubiquitous system of high-technology surveillance of religious sites and expanded use of local party cadres to surveil neighbors and report ‘cult-related activities, illegal preaching, and other political and security risks.’ Authorities blocked religious websites and censored religious content from the popular messaging service WeChat. Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, the Quran, and other religious literature and penalized businesses that copied and published religious materials.”

The report quotes from “Bitter Winter” “that authorities commonly treated nonauthorized religious and ‘superstitious’ books, including unauthorized editions of Bibles, in the same way as pornography with regard to penalties for their production, distribution, and possession. According to Bitter Winter, in June, police and Market Supervision Bureau officers in Shangcheng County, Henan Province, searched bookstores for unauthorized religious or ‘superstitious’ publications. Authorities particularly targeted bookstores near schools and colleges. Bitter Winter said local believers ‘resented a policy that puts non-authorized religious books and pornography in the same category.’”

As mentioned earlier, as it happened last year, the report is somewhat “soft” on the U.S. political allies. It is not surprising that it mentions that in France the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed an administrative action asking the governmental anti-cult agency MIVILUDES to delete from some of its documents “defamatory passages” without specifying that the Jehovah’s Witnesses won the case. This victory came in 2024 and the report deals with events of 2023 only. The same is true for the “concerns” reported about a new dangerous law on “cults” that was under discussion in France in 2023. It has been passed in 2024 and we may expect and hope it will be discussed in detail in next year’s report.

While it is positive that the report keeps reminding its readers every year that the bizarre “‘Sect filters,’ i.e., signed statements by potential employees confirming they had no contact with the Church of Scientology, remain in use in the public and private sectors” in Germany, it is somewhat surprising that controversial intrusions of the state on the management of the properties of religious organizations in Taiwan are simply presented as “efforts to prevent individuals from misappropriating property held by religious organizations.” The situation is more complicated—nor is the long-lasting Tai Ji Men case that many scholars throughout the world have studied as a paradigmatic example of misuse of tax laws to harass a spiritual minority deemed worthy of a mention. But then Taiwan is a crucial and strategic U.S. ally in the region.

So is Japan, but there the report could not ignore what is happening to the Unification Church (now called the Family Federation for the World Peace and Unification) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The report notes that, “On October 13 [2023, the Tokyo District Court officially accepted a request submitted by MEXT to order the revocation of legal corporate status for the Family Federation in order to ‘dissolve’ the church…” The report does note that, “This was the government’s first request to dissolve a religious corporation on the basis of a violation of civil law.” Japanese law had been constantly interpreted as requesting violations of criminal, rather than merely civil, laws to proceed with a request of dissolution.

Most international religious liberty activists and scholars agree that changing the interpretation of the law on such a crucial matter as the dissolution of a religious organization, and applying the new interpretation retroactively, is inconsistent with Japan’s international human rights and religious liberty commitments. While mentioning this opinion, and summarizing the booklet by “international lawyer Nakayama Tatsuki” serialized in English by “Bitter Winter,” the Department of State’s report chooses to remain neutral. It reports the opinion of the government and the opinion of its critics. What the position of the U.S. Department of State itself is remains unclear.

Similarly, the report does mention that the campaign against “cults,” which has also targeted the Jehovah’s Witnesses, has caused serious social consequences. It notes that the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan have denounced an “‘unbalanced’ media coverage perpetuated dangerous stereotypes founded on inaccurate and distorted claims made by former associates.” Also, “Members of the Family Federation stated they were unable to express their religion openly due to what they described as ‘biased’ or ‘antagonistic’ media coverage and pressure from the [anti-cult organization] National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales since the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe in 2022. Members stated they feared indicating their church affiliation due to worries over being shunned, citing examples including one city employee declining a monetary donation from the church and one city denying a member’s participation in at least one community cultural event because they did not want to be associated with the organization. Members expressed concern that their hesitancy to express their religion would be exacerbated if the court decided to ‘dissolve’ or revoke the corporate status of the church, as the public might view this decision as confirmation that the organization was ‘bad.’”

That the current dramatic situation of members of the Family Federation and Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan is acknowledged is important. What is missing, however, is a clear statement that the post-Abe-assassination campaigns and government actions targeting the Unification Church/Family Federation and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan have created what is the worst religious liberty crisis of the 21st century in a democratic country. One would have expected from what is the most comprehensive and, from many points of view, best governmental report on religious liberty in the world to overcome political caution and state this simple truth in so many words.

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