Concerted efforts needed in government probe

If the charging of extraordinary fees beyond social conventions or receiving donations without the consent of families is rampant, it needs to be dealt with strictly.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has instructed Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Keiko Nagaoka to launch an investigation authorized under the Religious Corporations Law over issues surrounding the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, widely known as the Unification Church.

The Religious Corporations Law stipulates that, when a religious corporation is suspected of violating laws and regulations and harming public welfare, the government can request reports from the corporation and ask questions of related individuals. This is the first time this “right to ask questions” will be employed.

In the Unification Church’s past, there have been many victims of methods such as the so-called spiritual sales tactic that involves preying on people’s fears to cajole them into buying items at exorbitant prices. The religious group claims that such problems have already been eliminated, but a government hotline set up in September has received about 1,700 inquiries.

It is only natural the prime minister judged that the situation could not be left unaddressed. “There are many victims, but relief for them is not progressing,” Kishida said at a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee. “I take this very seriously.”

The uncovering of the actual situation and providing relief for the victims is an urgent task. But is it a good idea to leave the matter solely to the culture ministry?

The Cultural Affairs Agency, the ministry’s satellite organ which has jurisdiction over religious corporations, has limited staff, and there are concerns about the effectiveness of its investigations. It is important that the Consumer Affairs Agency, which is in charge of countermeasures against spiritual sales, the Justice Ministry, which deals with human rights issues, and other relevant government bodies work together as a whole to respond to the issue.

Until now, the government has been cautious about conducting investigations of religious corporations, saying that such investigations could threaten freedom of religion as stipulated in the Constitution.

However, the issue of freedom of conscience, such as whether to believe in a doctrine, and the appropriateness of a religious organization’s actions should be considered separately. If an organization continues to engage in malicious business practices, it must be properly regulated.

An expert panel of the Consumer Affairs Agency has in the meantime compiled a report on preventing and remedying damage caused by spiritual sales.

The aim of the report is to prohibit religious corporations from concealing their true identities to solicit followers and putting believers into a psychological state in which they are unable to make rational judgments.

The report also proposed expanding conditions to make it easier for followers to subsequently rescind purchases of goods they have been lured into making through the spiritual sales method. If the current laws are unable to address this issue, the government must consider legislation.

There have been many reports of families falling apart after large donations were repeatedly made, according to the Consumer Affairs Agency. The problem of the children of the believers who have fallen into poverty as a result of their parents’ religious activities also must not be left unaddressed.

It is essential to improve the system by promoting counseling and support in a concerted manner for those suffering from problems related to religious groups.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 18, 2022)