The Japan branch of the Unification Church is vowing to wage a concerted legal battle in response to what it calls a politically motivated attack by Japanese lawmakers, who filed a request last week to disband the church formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
Church officials have accused Japanese lawmakers of acting on “biased information from a left-wing lawyer group” in filing the request in Tokyo District court on Friday — a move coming a year after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida launched an investigation into the church’s activities.
The probe and prospect of religious discrimination by the Japanese government have triggered concern in international religious freedom circles, with some saying the church has faced persecution in Japan since the July 2022 assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“We are extremely disappointed,” church officials said statement, asserting that the Family Federal for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU), which is headquartered in South Korea but has hundreds of thousands of believers in Japan, will defend itself both in the arena of public opinion and through “legal claims in court.”
The developments mark the latest in a highly publicized wave of scrutiny over the FFWPU’s fundraising and recruitment activities following the Abe assassination. The gunman accused of shooting Mr. Abe allegedly was motivated by the former prime minister’s links to the Unification Church that he blamed for bankrupting his family.
Decades of relations between the church and Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party — the party of both Mr. Abe and Mr. Kishida — have drawn attention over the past year and have eroded support for the Kishida government.
The current Japanese prime minister told reporters Thursday that the government’s court request against the FFWPU was made based on facts and was not political, denying speculation that it was intended to shore up dwindling public support for his hold on power in Japan.
The request filed Friday by Japanese lawmakers asks the Tokyo court to revoke the legal status of the FFWPU on grounds an investigation by Japan’s Education Ministry concluded the group systematically manipulated its followers into donating money, sowing fear and harming their families.
The request specifically asks for the court to issue a dissolution order revoking the Unification Church’s status as a religious organization.
While the request spurred global headlines over the weekend, legal analysts note that the court process will involve months — if not years — of hearings.
Japan has in place hurdles for restraining religious activities due to lessons from the prewar and wartime oppression of freedom of religion and thought. If the FFWPU’s status is revoked, it would be the first-ever such revocation under civil law in Japan.
Even then, however, the Unification Church would still be allowed to operate in Japan, although it would lose its current tax exemption privilege as a religious organization and could face financial setbacks.
The Unification Church opened its first Japan chapter in 1959. Membership, as well as financial support from followers, grew during Japan’s rise as a global economic power in the 1980s.
The church was founded in 1954 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a fierce proponent of religious freedom. What began with a tiny, embattled church he founded in South Korea has evolved through the decades into a global spiritual movement and an affiliated commercial empire comprising hundreds of ventures in more than a half-dozen countries, including The Washington Times.
The church was officially recognized as a religion in Japan near the height of the Cold War during the 1960s amid an anti-communist movement supported by Mr. Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.
Looming court battle
The Associated Press reported Friday that Japanese Education Ministry officials submitted 5,000 pieces of documents and evidence in cardboard boxes to the Tokyo court.
Education Minister Masahito Moriyama said Japanese officials interviewed more than 170 people allegedly harmed by the Unification Church’s fundraising tactics and other problems. The church failed to respond to dozens of questions during the seven inquiries, according to Mr. Moriyama.
He claimed 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.
Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs found 32 cases of civil lawsuits acknowledging damages totaling $14.7 million for 169 people, while the amount of settlements reached in or outside court totaled $137 million and involved 1,550 people, the education minister said.
As part of the Kishida government’s probe over the past year, investigators examined the issue of so-called “spiritual sales,” through which the church has faced accusations of raising funds by selling objects like vases and miniature pagodas at inflated prices.
Church officials have acknowledged excessive donations, but say the problem was mitigated by reforms more than a decade ago.
A statement by the FFWPU’s Japan branch ahead of Friday’s court filing noted intensive reforms dating back to 2009, when the church issued a “Compliance Declaration” aimed at addressing concerns over its fundraising.
“Since the Compliance Declaration in 2009, we have actively worked on church reform, especially by appointing a new generation of leaders who will carry the future, and have continued to promote reform to this day,” the FFWPU said. The statement added that “since September last year, we have established a ‘Church Reform Promotion Headquarters’ …and have been working on further reforms.”
‘Left-wing lawyer group’
The statement separately said the Kishida government’s actions against the FFWPU are “the result of pursuing opposition parties and pandering to public opinion” and “will be a stain on Japan’s constitutional history.”
“It is extremely regrettable that the Japanese government made such an important decision based on biased information from a left-wing lawyer group established with the purpose of destroying [the FFWPU],” the statement said.
The comment was a reference to a group known as the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales. The lawyer group, which has represented claimants seeking settlements from the Unification Church over fundraising disputes, received little media attention prior to the Abe assassination.
In the wake of the assassination, church officials have spoken out against “biased news coverage,” asserting that “abusive” reporting in Japanese and other media has included “hate speech” and “encourages religious discrimination” against the FFWPU.
Rev. Tomihiro Tanaka, who heads the Japan branch of the church, told a press conference in Tokyo last year that the coverage amounted to “religious persecution” and risked triggering violence against believers.
“Our churches in Japan have been subject to death threats and threatening phone calls, abusive language blasting out of sound trucks, and obstruction of assemblies, with some members of the media harassing ordinary members,” Rev. Tanaka said.
A prominent European religious freedom group subsequently asked the top United Nations human rights body to examine what it called a “campaign of intolerance, discrimination, and persecution of the Unification Church” in Japan following the Abe assassination.
The Paris-based Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience (CAP-LC) made the claim in a formal statement last year to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which operates under the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and oversees the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — a U.N. treaty to which Japan is a signatory.
In its statement, the CAP-LC pointed specifically to the “National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales,” asserting that the group has spurred “hate campaigns” against the Unification Church and “occasionally targeted other religious movements as well.”
The CAP-LC claimed the network has a history defending individuals who’ve engaged in violent “deprogramming” operations, which are “forbidden in most democratic countries.” In the past, the operations have included kidnapping of Unification Church members for the purpose of “de-converting” them, the group wrote.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.