Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has ordered an investigation into the Unification Church amid a growing scandal tying his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the controversial religious group.
Kishida announced the probe during a parliamentary session on Monday and said it would be carried out using “the right to ask questions” provision of the Religious Corporations Act.
As of September 30, Kishida said a telephone hotline established earlier that month had received more than 1,700 consultation requests regarding the church.
The government “has seriously taken into account the many victims, the poverty and broken families that have not been provided with adequate help,” he said. He added it was difficult to say when the probe would end.
The government will convene a meeting next week to examine the conditions for the inquiry, the first established under “the right to ask questions.”
The Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, rose to prominence in the late 1950s, and had become a global organization by the 1980s. It continues to make international headlines for its mass weddings, in which thousands of young couples tie the knot at the same time, with some brides and grooms meeting each other for the first time on their wedding day.
The church, which is still prominent in parts of Asia, has come under heightened global scrutiny since former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated in central Japan in July.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported at the time that the suspect had targeted the former prime minister because he believed Abe’s grandfather – another former leader of the country – had helped the expansion of a religious group he held a grudge against.
CNN has not been able to independently confirm what group Yamagami was referring to, or any links between Abe and any group the suspect harbored hatred towards.
But the Unification Church spoke out in the aftermath, saying the suspect’s mother had been a member who attended its events about once a month. A spokesperson said he had learned the suspect’s mother was having financial difficulties around 2002, but added: “We don’t know what the causes were or how they affected the family circumstances.”
The suspect himself was never a member of the church, said the spokesperson.
The church said it had received a message of support from Abe at an event it organized, but that the former prime minister was not a registered church member, nor did he sit on its advisory board. It added it was puzzled by reports of alleged resentment held against the group by the suspect, and that it would “cooperate fully” with police.
How one man’s epiphany on a Seoul mountain in 1955 laid the foundation for many religious sects in South Korea
But public suspicion toward the group – and a backlash over its fundraising practices – continue to rise after an investigation in August by Japan’s ruling LDP found more than half of its lawmakers had ties with the church.
Several high-ranking officials, including former defense minister Nobuo Kishi, said they had received help in past elections from church members.
Kishida has purged those officials and apologized for their reported links to the church, pledging to cut his party’s ties to the group.
Depending on the outcome of the impending investigation and a court judgment, the Unification Church could lose its status as a religious corporation and subsequent tax benefits, NHK reported on Monday. The group, however, could still operate as an entity.