The Japanese Prime Minister ordered an investigation into the problems of the Unification Church

TOKYO (AP) – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ordered an investigation into the Unification Church on Monday in an apparent move to calm public anger over his ruling party’s cozy ties to the controversial group, which were revealed after the assassination of Shinzo Abe.

Former Prime Minister Abe was assassinated during an open-air speech in July. The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he killed Abe because of his apparent connection to a religious group he hated. The letter and social media posts attributed to Yamagami said his mother’s large donations to the church bankrupted his family and ruined his life.

Kishida said a government hotline set up to receive church-related complaints and inquiries has resulted in more than 1,700 cases being handled by police and legal experts.

“Many victims are facing financial difficulties and their families are devastated, but the government has not been able to provide adequate support and I take that seriously,” Kishida said. He also promised to do more to support alleged victims, including a possible overhaul of consumer contract laws to prevent future problems.

The Unification Church, founded in 1954 in South Korea by Sun Myung Moon, gained the status of a religious organization in Japan in 1968 amid an anti-communist movement supported by Abe’s grandfather and former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi.

Since the 1980s, the church has faced accusations of underhanded business tactics and recruitment, including brainwashing members to hand over huge chunks of their paychecks to Moon.

The group admitted that there were cases of “excessive” donations. It said the problems had eased since it adopted stricter compliance in 2009 and recently promised further reforms.

A government panel filed a report earlier Monday detailing many of the financial problems and lawsuits stemming from the church’s methods. The report calls for an investigation as it considers revoking the group’s legal status, although officials are understood to be reluctant to go that far.

Kishida told a parliamentary committee meeting on Monday that he had ordered Education and Culture Minister Keiko Nagaoka, primarily charged with overseeing religious groups, to prepare to investigate the church under the Religious Corporations Act.

A police investigation into Abe’s murder has revealed widespread ties between the South Korea-based church and members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, including Abe, due to their shared interests in conservative causes. The case also shed light on the suffering of the followers’ children, some of whom have come forward to say they were forced to join the church and were left in poverty or neglected because of their parents’ devotion.

Many critics believe that the church is a cult because of the problems with followers and their families due to their financial and mental difficulties.

An LDP survey in September showed that almost half of its MPs had ties to the church, including cabinet ministers. Kishida has vowed to sever all such ties, but many Japanese want a further explanation of how the church could have influenced party politics.

Kishida has come under fire, with his government’s approval ratings plummeting over his handling of the church controversy and holding a state funeral for Abe, one of Japan’s most divisive leaders who is now seen as a key link to the ruling party’s church ties.

Nagaoka, the culture minister, said she would form a panel of legal and religious experts next week to discuss the rare investigation into the religious group.

Members of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Trafficking, which oversees the church, petitioned the ministries of culture and justice and the attorney general last week to issue an order to dissolve the church.

The church acknowledged that Yamagami’s mother donated more than 100 million yen ($700,000), including life insurance and real estate, to the group. It is said that about half was later returned at the request of the suspect’s uncle.

Experts say Japanese followers are being asked to pay for the sins of their ancestors committed during their colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, and that 70% of the church’s funding comes from Japan.

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