In preparation for an investigation of the religious group commonly known as the Unification Church under the Religious Corporations Law, the first meeting of the Cultural Affairs Agency's expert panel agreed Tuesday that standards should be set for the proper exercise of the government's "right to ask questions."
The panel confirmed that the agency will present it with a draft set of standards to review at its next meeting on Nov. 8.
The meeting was the first step in a process with a view to requesting a dissolution order for the group, which is officially called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. The right to ask questions was added to the revised law, which came into force in 1996, and has never been exercised.
The meeting was attended by 18 of the panel's 19 members, either in person or online, and about half of them expressed their opinions.
Although some expressed the opinion that "religious freedom must be taken into consideration" in exercising the right to ask questions, there were no objections or concerns voiced, according to sources.
After formulating the criteria, the agency will consult with the Religious Juridical Persons Council, an advisory body to the education, culture, sports, science and technology minister, on specific items of questioning and how to conduct the probe.
This council will be composed of the same members as the expert panel.
The government intends to begin the investigation as soon as possible within this year, after hearing the opinions of the council.
If the Unification Church is found to be in serious violation of laws and regulations, the government will request a court to issue a dissolution order for the group.
If the dissolution order becomes final, the Unification Church will be stripped of its status as a religious corporation, which qualifies it for tax benefits.
However, it could continue to exist as a voluntary religious organization.
Questionnaire with deadline
The exercise of the right to ask questions will be handled by the Religious Affairs Division of the Cultural Affairs Agency, which has jurisdiction over religious corporations.
The agency will present the questions and the reasons for asking them to the Unification Church in writing. If the group fails to answer the questions, the representative official of the group will be fined up to 100,000 yen.
With the consent of the Unification Church, it is legally possible to enter and inspect facilities.
The provisions of the Religious Corporations Law provide the right to ask questions on "matters relating to the management and operation of the business or affairs of a religious corporation," while requiring that religious freedom be taken into consideration.
Specifically, the questions are expected to cover the existence and use of profits from the group's businesses, whether there are any violations of laws and regulations or activities deviating from the group's purpose, and financial information.
Although the law does not specify a deadline for responses, the agency intends to set a deadline in order to avoid delay in the response.
If the agency determines that a response is insufficient, it may ask the question multiple times.
Since the Religious Affairs Division has only eight staff members, other departments of the agency and the education ministry have dispatched support staff to bolster the division's readiness.
Education minister Keiko Nagaoka said at a press conference on Tuesday, "We will also get cooperation from legal and accounting experts," indicating that she intends to respond in cooperation with other ministries.
In order to collect a wide range of information on suspected illegal activities by the Unification Church, the agency also intends to cooperate with the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which is working to provide legal support for victims.
The Unification Church has stated that it will respond in good faith to any questions that come its way.
However, observers in religious circles have expressed concern that it will be difficult to uncover new facts through an investigation based on exchanging documents, and that the investigation will probably be limited to confirming facts that have already emerged.
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