Interfaith collaboration for nuclear disarmament

In a volatile world, nuclear weapons must be eliminated not just controlled

The Urakami Tenshudo Catholic Church in Nagasaki in 1946. Photo: AIHARA,Hidetsugu

On the third floor of the United Nations Headquarters in New York stands a solemn statue of St Agnes, holding her namesake lamb as a disturbing reminder of the horror of nuclear war.

The saint is known for resisting multiple attempts to kill her, but her statue survived the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki by the United States on 9 August 9 1945. The bomb exploded 500m above Urakami Cathedral, Asia’s largest Catholic church at the time. 

The bomb incinerated 60-80,000 people, of whom no more than 150 were soldiers. St Agnes was found face down in the rubble of the cathedral.

Declassified Pentagon documents now solve the puzzle of why Nagasaki was targeted despite not being included in the initial list of targets: at the last-minute, the city was added in handwriting by an unknown hand to obliterate the most historic Catholic community in Japan as retribution. 

This could be retribution for the Vatican’s 1942 establishment of diplomatic relations with Japan. The US, it seems, could not forgive the Vatican for establishing diplomatic relations with its enemy, Tokyo. In the book American Prometheus, the developer of the American atomic bomb in 1945, J Robert Oppenheimer, is cited as saying that he was opposed to the second bomb over Nagasaki.

And it was there, in front of the statue of St Agnes in New York, that I met anti-nuclear campaigner Hirotsugu Terasaki, director general of the lay Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai International (SGI), representing 12 million people worldwide. 

Nuclear tests conducted
Breakdown of nuclear tests conducted by China, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union and the United States from 1945-1996.

Founded in 1930, Soka Gakkai is Japan’s largest organised religious group dedicated to the teachings of Nichiren, a 13th century Japanese Buddhist priest. A regular collaborator with the Holy See, SGI was a participating partner at the Vatican’s 2017 conference ‘Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament’ at the Vatican in 2017.

This time, Terasaki was at the UN to attend the second Meeting of State Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), an ambitious disarmament treaty, the first prohibiting countries from possessing nuclear arms, signed by 93 countries, most recently Sri Lanka. It went into effect 22 January, 2021.

SGI’s disarmament commitment stretches back over half a century and is connected with his country’s tragic experience of nuclear holocaust. The Soka Gakkai youth division in Japan started a campaign in 1972 aimed at protecting the fundamental human right to survival by gathering and documenting thousands of wartime testimonials of Japanese nuclear survivors known as hibakusha.

“My personal involvement brought me face-to-face with the harrowing accounts of hibakusha,” Terasaki recalled. “There were some who initially agreed to be interviewed, but once it began, they were voiceless, choked by the weight of their anguish and pain. It shook the depth of my soul.”

Of 650,000 hibakusha recognised by the Japanese government, over 113,000 are alive and still influence the contemporary disarmament movement by inspiring its leaders. 

Hirotsugu Terasaki
Hirotsugu Terasaki of Soka Gakkai speaking at the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo: Katsuhiro Asagiri.

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (which won a Nobel Peace Prize for creating public awareness of the catastrophe of nuclear weapons in 1985) initiated the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and asked SGI to sign on as an early collaborator to help gain global approval of the TPNW. 

“To realise our vision of a nuclear-free world, we felt compelled to forge a vast global network committed to educating people about the devastating realities of nuclear weapons,” Terasaki said. “We efforts began by organising study groups for diplomats, raising awareness about the aftermath of nuclear exposure.”

The TPNW was adopted by the United Nations in July 2017, and the Vatican was one of the first signatories. Others included Pax, the Dutch Catholic peace group and the World Council of Churches.

No surprisingly, TPNW has not been signed by the nine countries with nuclear capability: Russia (5,889 warheads); US (5,224 warheads); China (410); France (290); United Kingdom (225); Pakistan (170); India (164); Israel (90); and North Korea (30). Nor have five states hosting nuclear weapons for the US signed: Italy (35); Turkey (20); Belgium (15); Germany (15); or Netherlands (15).

The main message of the campaigners is that nuclear weapons are the most inhumane weapons ever created. They violate international law, cause irreversible ecological damage, undermine global security, and divert budgets from addressing human needs. Nuclear weapons must be eliminated, not just controlled.

Yet, the US government is planning to upgrade its nuclear capacity with an additional $1.5 trillion to modernise its nuclear arsenal. Presently, there are approximately 12,500 nuclear warheads worldwide, with the United States and Russia holding nearly 90% of the stockpile. It is enough to destroy the planet several times over.

Explained Terasaki, “Countries believe in nuclear deterrence, but we must question whether it is just a ruse to perpetuate nuclear armament. The current nuclear expansion will not yield peace and security based on global nuclear balance, but could bring Armageddon.”

Nuclear disarmament goes beyond being a diplomatic effort based on international relations — it has become a moral imperative with humanitarian and spiritual dimensions. Which means there is a role for faith-based organisations with their large following.

In Japan, Soka Gakkai’s affiliation with the Komeito party (NKP), founded by Daisaku Ikeda in 1964 gives it unique influence in national policy-making. In the 1960s, Ikeda advocated for the reopening of China-Japan relations, visiting China ten times to  meet leaders like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. 

In the 1970s, Ikeda traveled to the Soviet Union and met with Premier Aleksey Kosygin mediating between Beijing and Moscow, at the height of China-USSR tensions. NKP has been the Liberal Democratic Party (LPD) junior partner since 1999.

Teresaki described two inspiring events that promote peace, denuclearisation, and cross-cultural dialogue: In 2022 he attended both the Seventh Congress of Leaders of the World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan as a Buddhist representative, and, a month later, he was in Bahrain for the forum East and West for Human Coexistence.

“I was particularly moved seeing the reconciliatory atmosphere between Catholic and Sunni Islamic leaders sitting in the same room,” observed the Japanese leader. “These forums offered a promising platform for religious leaders from across the globe to engage in candid and meaningful discourse, sharing insights and wisdom on the pressing global issues facing humanity.”

The fundamental Buddhist tenet informing SGI anti-nuclear advocacy is that individual and society’s security are one and interdependent. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition of SGI emphasises how an individual, through discipline and deepening practice, works change within that impacts the external world.

Pope Francis declared at Nagasaki in 2019, “Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation. They can be achieved only on the basis of a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation.” (Agenzia Fides/INPS Japan)

Victor Gaetan is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Register, focusing on international issues and writes for Foreign Affairs magazine. He is the author of God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).  VictorGaetan.org

Watch video of interview with Hirotsugu Terasaki, DG of Peace and Global Issues of SGI by Victor Gaetan at UN. (Turn on translation)

Victor Gaetan interviewing Hirotsugu Terasaki of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) at the United Nations Headquarters recently.
Victor Gaetan interviewing Hirotsugu Terasaki of Soka Gakkai International (SGI) at the United Nations Headquarters recently.

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