TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s government asked a court Friday to revoke the legal status of the Unification Church after an Education Ministry investigation concluded the group for decades has systematically manipulated its followers into donating money, sowing fear and harming their families.
The request submitted to the Tokyo District Court asks for it to issue a dissolution order revoking the church’s status as a religious organization. Education Ministry officials submitted 5,000 pieces of documents and evidence in cardboard boxes to the court to support its request.
The process involves hearings and appeals from both sides and would take a while. If the order is approved and its legal status is stripped, the church could still operate but would lose its tax exemption privilege as a religious organization and would face financial setbacks.
The request was made a day after Education Minister Masahito Moriyama announced a panel of experts had endorsed the revocation request based on the findings of the ministry’s investigation into the church’s fundraising tactics and other allegations.
The Japan branch of the South Korea-based church, which officially calls itself the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, earlier condemned the government’s decision.
“It is our deepest regret that the Japanese government made the serious decision based on distorted information provided by a leftist lawyers’ group formed for the purpose of destroying our organization,” the church said in a statement late Thursday. “It will be a stain in Japan’s Constitutional history.”
As part of the Education Ministry investigation, officials interviewed more than 170 people allegedly harmed by the church’s fundraising tactics and other problems. The church failed to respond to dozens of questions during the seven inquiries, Moriyama said Thursday.
The church tried to steer its followers’ decision-making, using manipulative tactics, making them buy expensive goods and donate beyond their financial ability and causing fear and harm to them and their families, Moriyama said Thursday.
The tactics 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. “The activities are wrongful conducts under the Civil Code and their damages are immense.”
The Agency for Cultural Affairs found 32 cases of civil lawsuits acknowledging damages totaling 2.2 billion yen ($14.7 million) for 169 people, while the amount of settlements reached in or outside court totaled 20.4 billion yen ($137 million) and involved 1,550 people, Moriyama said.
Japan has in place hurdles for restraining religious activities due to lessons from the prewar and wartime oppression of freedom of religion and thought.
The investigation followed months of public outrage and questions about the group’s fundraising and recruitment tactics after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination last year. The man accused of shooting Abe allegedly was motivated by the former prime minister’s links to the church that he blamed for bankrupting his family.
Decades of cozy ties between the church and Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party were revealed since Abe’s assassination and have eroded support for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government. Kishida told reporters Thursday that the government’s decision to seek the revocation order was made carefully based on facts and was not political, denying speculation it was intended to shore up dwindling public support.
The Unification Church 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 acknowledged excessive donations but says the problem has been mitigated for more than a decade. It also has pledged further reforms.
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 church’s status is revoked, it would be the first under civil law. 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.