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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Justin McCurry in Osaka

Japan may seek to dissolve Moonies church in wake of Shinzo Abe killing

A portrait of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe is seen during a memorial service on the first anniversary of his death, at Zojoji Temple in Tokyo on July 8, 2023.
A portrait of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe is seen during a memorial service on the first anniversary of his death, at Zojoji Temple in Tokyo on July 8, 2023. The Unification church may be dissolved in the wake of an inquiry sparked by the killing. Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

Japan’s government may ask courts to order the dissolution of the Unification church following the assassination in July last year of the former prime minister Shinzo Abe, according to multiple local reports.

The church, whose members are known colloquially as Moonies, could be subject to a court order to disband as early as next month, pending the completion of an inquiry into the group’s controversial fundraising activities, according to the Kyodo news agency, which cited an unnamed government source.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying the government has concluded that dissolution would be appropriate given that the church had engaged in “vicious, organised and continued” activities that outweighed considerations of religious freedoms enshrined in the constitution.

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”.

Groups that are dissolved are stripped of their status as a religious corporation, losing their exemption from corporate and property taxes, as well as a tax on income from monetary offerings, according to the Mainichi Shimbun.

But it could operate in a new incarnation. After it lost its status as a religious legal entity in late 1995, the Aum doomsday cult renamed itself Aleph and continues to recruit members and solicit donations, according to the justice ministry.

The government has been investigating the church – formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification – over its fundraising activities, while battling a scandal over the group’s ties to Japanese politicians, particularly members of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP).

The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, may be hoping the move will quell criticism of his party’s ties to the church, the Asahi suggested. In the months after Abe’s death, the media uncovered evidence that LDP politicians – and a much smaller number of opposition MPs – had ties to the group, from giving speeches at church-sponsored events to enlisting followers to work on election campaigns.

Some members of Kishida’s party have reportedly cautioned against dissolution, however, fearing that the government could be accused of trampling on religious freedoms.

Abe, whose grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the ultra-conservative church establish a presence in Japan in the 1960s, was shot dead in July 2022 by a man who has said he harboured a grudge against the Unification church and Abe.

The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, whose trial on murder and other charges is not expected to start until next year, has reportedly told police he targeted the politician, whom he shot at close range with a homemade weapon at an election rally, because of his family’s ties to the Moonies.

Yamagami, who underwent a psychiatric evaluation lasting several months, said he blamed the church for bankrupting his family after his mother, a member, donated more than 100m yen (£542,000) to the group two decades earlier.

Abe was not a member, but sent a congratulatory video message to a church affiliate in late 2021, in which he said he shared its belief in traditional family values.

Testimony by former members, court rulings in civil lawsuits and church documents showed the group demanded huge financial donations through “spiritual sales” – in which followers are pressured into buying items, such as vases, at exorbitant prices.

Founded in South Korea in 1954 by the self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon, the church has established a global presence, with Japan proving fertile ground for converts and their donations.

The group claims to have 100,000 active believers in Japan and has collected nearly $1bn in donations since 1987 and generated 35,000 compensation claims, according to the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which represents people who claim they have suffered financial damage because of the church.

Japan has around 180,000 registered religious organisations, but only two have received dissolution orders: the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult, whose members carried out a deadly sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and the Myokakuji temple group, whose leaders were accused of defrauding followers.

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