How Abe's murder increased scrutiny of the Unification Church

Sara Hussein and Natsuko Fukue, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 27 2022 07:13 AM

Some 4,000 couples take part in a mass wedding ceremony at the CheongShim Peace World Center in Gapyeong-gun, South Korea, on August 27, 2018. The event was organized by South Korea's Unification Church and officiated by religious leader Hak Ja Han. Jeon Heon-Kyun, EPA-EFE/file
Some 4,000 couples take part in a mass wedding ceremony at the CheongShim Peace World Center in Gapyeong-gun, South Korea, on August 27, 2018. The event was organized by South Korea's Unification Church and officiated by religious leader Hak Ja Han. Jeon Heon-Kyun, EPA-EFE/file

TOKYO, Japan - The assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe has renewed scrutiny of the Unification Church in Japan, with accusations being made that the sect cultivates political connections and pressures members to donate.

Abe's alleged killer resented the church over ruinous donations made by his mother, and reportedly targeted the politician over his links to the group.

Here are some questions and answers about the organization, and the controversy that followed Abe's murder:

What is the Unification Church?

Officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church was founded in Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon. It is famous for mass wedding ceremonies, and its members are sometimes called "Moonies".

As the organization rose to global prominence in the 1970s and 80s, it spawned a multi-billion dollar business empire encompassing construction, food, education, the media and even a professional football club.

By the time of Moon's death in 2012, the church claimed to have about three million followers. But experts believe membership has fallen sharply from a 1980s peak to several hundred thousand.

Groups affiliated with the church have secured addresses from powerful speakers over the years -- including Abe and former US president Donald Trump, neither of whom belonged to the sect.

Why did Abe's death renew scrutiny?

The church's practices, particularly so-called "spiritual sales" of high-priced religious items in Japan, have been controversial for years.

Former members have claimed they were pressured to spend huge amounts of money, an allegation the church denies.

But the accusations resurfaced after it emerged that Abe's alleged assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, resented the church over massive donations made by his mother.

Security police tackle a suspect who is believed to have shot former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outside Yamato-Saidaiji Station in Nara, Japan, July 8, 2022. The suspect identified as Tetsuya Yamagami was arrested and taken into custody. According to Japan's national broadcaster, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe died of his injuries on July 8, 2022, hours after being shot during an Upper House election campaign act to support a party candidate, outside Yamato-Saidaiji railway station in Nara, western Japan. The Asahi Shimbun, EPA-EFE
Security police tackle a suspect who is believed to have shot former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outside Yamato-Saidaiji Station in Nara, Japan, July 8, 2022. The suspect identified as Tetsuya Yamagami was arrested and taken into custody. According to Japan's national broadcaster, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe died of his injuries on July 8, 2022, hours after being shot during an Upper House election campaign act to support a party candidate, outside Yamato-Saidaiji railway station in Nara, western Japan. The Asahi Shimbun, EPA-EFE

They reportedly left his family bankrupt, with his mother sometimes leaving her children alone and without food to attend church events.

The Unification Church in Japan has denied any wrongdoing, and last week pledged to prevent followers from making "excessive" donations.

How is the sect linked to politics?

After Abe's death, revelations of ties between the church and dozens of top politicians made headlines in Japan.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged an investigation, which found around half the ruling party's MPs had links with the sect and its spin-off groups, ranging from accepting campaign support to attending meetings and paying fees.

Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi said the party took the findings "seriously".

"We honestly feel sorry, and we'll make sure the party no longer has any relationship at all" with the church, he told reporters.

What does the church say?

The Japanese branch of the Unification Church has disavowed Abe's murder, saying its members have received death threats since the killing.

The group has confirmed Yamagami's mother is a member, but refuses to specify what donations she made.

"We don't know the circumstances that led this family to bankruptcy," Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the church in Japan, said in July.

Media reports say Yamagami's mother donated 100 million yen (around $1 million at the time) in total.

The church denies members are pressured, with a representative telling AFP that "our view is that all donations before Heaven must be given freely".

What effect has the scandal had?

The revelations about LDP lawmakers' ties to the church have put pressure on Kishida's approval ratings, and he has pledged that party members will sever all relations with the sect.

But the prime minister faces further controversy over his decision to give Abe a state funeral, a publicly funded event expected to cost around $12 million.

Around 60 percent of Japanese people oppose the decision, according to surveys ahead of the funeral.

Some are against spending public money to honour a politician, while others think a state funeral forces public mourning or minimises Abe's nationalist views.

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© Agence France-Presse

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