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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Justin McCurry in Tokyo

Japan asks court to strip Unification church of religious status

A person walks past a branch of the Unification church in Tokyo.
A person walks past a branch of the Unification church in Tokyo. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Japan’s government has asked a court to strip the Unification church of its status, amid growing criticism of the group’s fundraising activities after the assassination last year of the former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

If the Tokyo district court accepts the request, the church – whose members are colloquially known as Moonies – will be stripped of its status as a religious corporation and lose exemptions from corporate and property taxes, as well as a tax on income from monetary offerings.

However, it could continue to operate in a new incarnation, enabling it to recruit members and solicit donations, media reports said.

The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, and his cabinet decided this week to ask the court to take action after a year-long investigation into the church’s activities, including claims that it put pressure on members into donating huge sums of money as they sought forgiveness for their “sins”.

“It has impinged on people’s freedoms for a long time, prevented them from making sound decisions, severely damaged them and disrupted their lives,” the education minister, Masahito Moriyama, said shortly before the request was filed.

The church said in a statement it was “extremely regrettable that the government made such an important decision based on biased information from a leftwing group of lawyers established with the goal of destroying our corporation” – an apparent reference to the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which represents people who claim they have suffered financial damage because of the church.

A former church member, who posts online under an alias, said the government’s legal move had “been a long time coming”. She added: “This isn’t the end, though. We need to make sure the [court] order is carried out.”

The church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, came under scrutiny after Abe was shot dead in July 2022 by a man who said he held a grievance against the politician over his ties to the church.

While not a member, Abe had sent messages of support to events connected to the church, which is thought to raise about 10bn yen (£55m) a year in Japan, where it claims to have 100,000 active members.

Abe’s grandfather, the former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, was instrumental in helping the church establish a presence in Japan in the late 1950s to counter the growing influence of communism and trade unionism.

The suspect in Abe’s assassination, Tetsuya Yamagami, said he blamed the church for bankrupting his family after his mother, a member, donated more than 100m yen to the group two decades ago.

In the months after Abe’s death, reports emerged of the church’s close ties with politicians, including a large number of MPs belonging to the ruling Liberal Democratic party.

In response, Kishida ordered party members to cut their links with the church and launched an investigation that focused on how it raised money to fund its activities around the globe.

Under Japan’s religious corporations law, a court can issue a dissolution order if an organisation has committed acts that are “clearly recognised as being substantially detrimental to public welfare”.

The Unification church has denied any wrongdoing and promised to prevent “excessive” donations from members.

The education ministry has spent almost a year questioning the church and examining internal documents, as well as collecting testimony from people who claim they were pressured into making substantial donations to the organisation, which was founded by Sun Myung Moon, an anti-communist and self-declared messiah, in South Korea in 1954.

The government said it had uncovered “repeated malicious and illegal acts” by the church at an organisational level, according to the Kyodo news agency.

If the request is approved, the church would become only the third religious group in Japan to be stripped of its status by a court. One of the others is Aum Supreme Truth, a doomsday cult whose members carried out a deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Aum later relaunched under two different names and continues to recruit members.

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