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Japan’s government will ask court to revoke legal status of Unification Church

TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s government said Thursday it would ask a court to revoke the legal status of the Unification Church after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination raised questions about the group’s fundraising and recruitment tactics.

Education Minister Masahito Moriyama said the ministry proposed seeking the revocation after interviewing 170 people allegedly harmed by the fundraising tactics and other problems. The church failed to respond to dozens of questions during the hearings, he said.

If its legal status is stripped, the church would lose its tax exemption privilege as a religious organization but can still operate.

Decades of cozy ties between the South Korea-based church and Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party were revealed in the investigation of Abe’s 2022 assassination and have triggered public outrage. The man accused of shooting Abe at a campaign event allegedly told police he was motivated by the former prime minister’s links to the church that had bankrupted his family due to his mother’s excessive donations.

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The Unification Church founded by founder Sun Myung Moon obtained legal status as a religious organization in Japan in 1968 amid an anti-communist movement supported by Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

The church has faced hundreds of civil lawsuits and acknowledged excessive donations but says the problem has been mitigated for more than a decade. It recently pledged further reforms.

For decades, the church restrained followers’ mental state to incapacitate their decision-making, making them buy expensive goods and donate beyond their financial ability, also affecting the lives of their families, Moriyama said.

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The systematic fundraising tactics caused fear and confusion and seriously deviated from the law on religious groups, in which the purpose of the churches’ legal status is to give people peace of mind, he said.

Moriyama said the ministry will submit its request for a court order as early as Friday. The process could take a while, Japanese media reported.

Since the 1970s, the church has been accused of devious business and recruitment tactics, including brainwashing members into making huge donations to Moon and ruining their finances. Experts say Japanese followers are asked to pay for sins committed by their ancestors during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, and that the majority of the church’s worldwide funding comes from Japan.

If the court grants the order, the Unification Church would be the first to lose its legal status under a civil code violation.

Two earlier cases involved criminal charges — the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which carried out a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and the Myokakuji group, whose executives were convicted of fraud.