TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan opened an investigation into the Unification Church on Tuesday that could threaten its legal status after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July exposed its close ties to the ruling party and sparked a public backlash.
For the Unification Church, which was founded in South Korea in 1954 and relies on its Japanese followers as its main source of income, the investigation could deal a severe financial blow, affecting tax exemptions and even its property.
The stakes are also high for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government, which is teetering on an approval rating of just 30% and eager to quell the furor over links to the Unification Church, which last month forced the resignation of the economic recovery minister.
“For Kishida, this is clearly a huge burden for him,” said Levi McLaughlin, an associate professor at North Carolina State University who studies religion in Japan. “He will be tied to the Unification Church cause no matter what.”
Culture Minister Keiko Nagaoka told a news conference that the government had given the Unification Church until December 9 to respond to an initial series of questions about its finances and organization.
After evidence is gathered, the ministry will decide whether to seek a court order to revoke the Unification Church’s legal status, which could take several months and be followed by a lengthy legal battle.
A spokesperson for the congregation in Japan said the Unification Church expects to receive the first batch of government questions on Wednesday and will cooperate with the investigation.
A senior church official at its headquarters in South Korea added, “Japan is a democratic country that guarantees freedom of religion, so we are closely monitoring the situation.”
Shiori Kanno, a lawyer on a consumer affairs committee that looks into the church’s practice of selling ginseng drinks, marble carvings and other items to raise money from followers, said she expects the case to reach the Supreme Court if the government winds up. Trying to legally dissolve the church.
“The church will lose tax credits like those on donations from members,” she said. “You will find it difficult to borrow money.”
She added, however, that the loss of its status as a religious organization would not prevent the church from continuing its activities or meeting its members.
When Tetsuya Yamagami was arrested for the murder of former Prime Minister Abe in July, he blamed the religious organization for the impoverishment of his family and said that Abe, who appeared at events sponsored by groups affiliated with the Unification Church, promoted it.
The Unification Church, known worldwide for mass weddings, says it has stopped soliciting donations that create financial hardship for its followers and has scaled back aggressive door-to-door sales of church goods, following condemnations a decade ago of such practices. – Japan’s leader to resign.
However, with the church’s activities in the spotlight, Kishida has come under pressure to address public outrage, stoked by revelations that more than half of all lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have ties to the church.
The uproar continued despite a cabinet reshuffle on Aug. 10 that led to the purging of some prominent figures with ties to the church. In late October, Economic Revitalization Minister Daichiro Yamagiwa resigned after revealing his ties to the church.
Kishida will be especially keen to leave the issue behind him ahead of a series of local elections next April, when his party will face voters on a national scale for the first time since winning the upper house elections in July immediately following Abe’s death.
Additional reporting by Tim Kelly, Kaori Kaneko, and Jo Min Park; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, Kenneth Maxwell and Edmund Kellman
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