Tokyo (AFP) - Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ordered a government probe into the Unification Church on Monday, after the assassination of former premier Shinzo Abe renewed scrutiny of the sect.
The church has been in the spotlight because the man accused of killing Abe was reportedly motivated by resentment against the group, which has been accused of pressuring adherents to make hefty donations and blamed for child neglect among members.
Officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the organisation was founded in Korea by Sun Myung Moon and its members are sometimes called "Moonies".
The church has denied wrongdoing, but a parade of former members have gone public with criticism of its practices, and revelations about its links with top politicians have helped tank Kishida's approval ratings.
Kishida told parliament on Monday that there were "many victims" of the church and its related groups who had found themselves in poverty or facing family breakdown.
"Efforts to help them are still insufficient," he said, so "the government will exercise its right to probe the church, based on the Religious Corporations Act".
The government also wants to implement other measures, such as strengthening "initiatives to prevent child abuse and help the offspring of religious followers with their education and employment", Kishida said.
Local media said the probe would examine whether the church had harmed public welfare or committed acts at odds with its status as a religious group.
The investigation could lead to a dissolution order, which would see the church lose its status as a tax-exempt religious organisation, though it could still continue to operate.
Only two religious groups in Japan have ever received such an order, reports said, one of which was the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo metro.
The other is a group that defrauded members.
But the government is reportedly hesitant about the possibility of issuing the Unification Church such an order due to religious freedom concerns.