TOKYO, JAPAN — The Japanese government said Thursday it was seeking to strip official recognition from the Unification Church, the influential sect under intense scrutiny since the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last year ordered a probe into the church after it emerged that Abe’s alleged killer was motivated by resentment against the group.
It has been accused of pressuring its followers into making hefty donations and blamed for child neglect among its members.
If granted, the court dissolution order sought by the government would see the church lose its tax-exempt status, among other legal privileges, but still be allowed to continue its religious practices.
“In view of the extensive damage caused, we find that it falls under the grounds for ordering dissolution as stated in the religious corporations law,” Education Minister Masahito Moriyama told reporters after a panel of experts unanimously agreed with the decision.
The church “forced a number of people to contribute donations and buy items … in a way that restricted their free decision-making and sabotaged their sound judgement”, he added.
The minister said the request would be filed to the Tokyo District Court as early as Friday, once “preparations are complete”.
Abe was gunned down in broad daylight last year while giving a campaign speech in the western Nara region.
The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, is said to have resented the sect over large donations his mother made that bankrupted his family.
He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Investigations after Abe’s death revealed close ties between the church and many conservative ruling lawmakers in Japan.
Four of Kishida’s ministers have since stepped down over allegations of financial irregularities or links to the church.
Loss of credibility
Hajime Tajika, a law professor at Kindai University, explained there would be both social and legal impacts should the religious corporation status be revoked.
The Unification Church would “lose credibility” as a religious group, he said, which could in turn lead members to leave the church.
Aside from losing their tax exemption, they would also be banned from owning property in the church’s name, he explained, though they could transfer title to individuals before the dissolution order is finalised.
However, “not all problems will be solved just because the court issues a dissolution order”, he warned.
For instance, they could legally continue the controversial practice of selling high-priced religious items they tout as granting forgiveness from sins, so-called spiritual sales.
Only two religious groups in Japan have ever received such an order, one was the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo metro.
But as there is no Japanese law under which religious groups may be banned entirely, Aum’s two successor groups continue to operate and recruit members.
Tajika expects it will take “at least a year” until the order is finalised, as the Unification Church will likely take the case to a higher court.
On its website Thursday, the sect called the government’s decision “extremely regrettable”.
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader, was not a member of the church but had addressed an affiliated group, as have other well-known speakers including Donald Trump.
The former prime minister died on 8 July 2022, after being shot with a homemade gun as he spoke to supporters near a train station in Nara.
Yamagami, who faces murder and weapons charges, was apprehended on the spot.
He reportedly targeted Abe over his ties to the sect, of which Yamagami’s mother was a follower.
The suspect’s uncle told local media his nephew sometimes called him for help when his mother left her children alone and without food while attending church.
She donated 100 million yen (then around $1 million) to the group before declaring bankruptcy, he added.
While the church has confirmed his mother’s membership, it has refused to reveal how much she donated over the years.
Known officially as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the sect has denied any wrongdoing and pledged to prevent “excessive” donations from members.
Founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, the church, whose members are colloquially known as “Moonies”, rose to global prominence in the 1970s and ’80s.
Japan has since become a key financial hub for the church, which teaches Japanese believers they need to atone for their country’s wartime occupation of Korea.
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