By Tim Kelly
TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s government on Thursday said it will ask a court to strip the Unification Church of its legal status as a religion, removing tax exemptions and making it more difficult for the group to operate in Japan.
The Unification Church faced a public backlash in Japan after former prime minister Shinzo Abe was gunned down in July last year by a man angry at his alleged links to the church.
Subsequent revelations that 179 ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers had dealings with the church, including using its members as election campaign volunteers, triggered a slump in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s public support.
His party has denied having any “systematic relations” with the group.
Education Minister Masahito Moriyama said on Thursday the government will file a court request to strip the church of its status as soon as Friday.
“It has impinged on people’s freedoms for a long time, prevented them from making sound decisions, severely hurt them and disrupted their lives,” he told a press briefing.
Asked why the government had not acted earlier to curtail the Unification Church’s activities, Moriyama said the surge in public concern following Abe’s death had prompted it to investigate.
The Unification Church said in a statement it was “extremely regrettable that the government made such an important decision based on biased information from a left-wing group of lawyers established with the goal of destroying our corporation.”
It was referring to the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which pursues compensation cases against the church.
The group has long sought government action against the church and urged the LDP before Abe’s death to sever its ties. The group estimates the church raises around 10 billion yen ($67 million) a year in Japan.
“It has finally happened, but has been a long time coming,” said a former church member, who posts online under the alias Keiko Kaburagi to protect her identity.
“This isn’t the end though, we need to make sure the order is carried out,” added Kubaragi, who published a book about her time in the group last year.
Now known as The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church was founded in South Korea in 1954 by the late Sun Myung Moon, an anti-communist and self-declared messiah acquainted with Abe’s grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi.
Known for tapping its members for large donations, it has operated for decades in Japan, where it claims to have 100,000 active members.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly, editing by Deborah Kyvrikosaios and Angus MacSwan)