Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has ordered an investigation into the Unification Church amid a growing scandal linking his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the controversial religious group.
Kishida announced the inquiry during a parliamentary session on Monday and said it would be conducted using the “right to ask questions” provision of the Religious Societies Act.
As of September 30, Kishida said a hotline established earlier this month had received more than 1,700 consultation requests regarding the church.
The government “has given serious consideration to the many casualties, poverty and broken families who have not received adequate assistance,” he said. He added that it was difficult to say when the investigation would end.
The government will convene a meeting next week to discuss the terms of the inquiry, the first established under the “right to ask questions”.
The Unification Church, officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, rose to prominence in the late 1950s and had become a worldwide organization by the 1980s. He continues to make international headlines for his mass weddings, in which thousands of young couples marry at the same time, with some bride and groom meeting for the first time on their wedding day.
The church, which still looms large in parts of Asia, has come under increased global attention since the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in central Japan in July.
Japanese state 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 against which he resented.
CNN was unable to independently confirm which group Yamagami was referring to, or any connection between Abe and any group the suspect harbored hatred towards.
But the Unification Church later spoke out, saying the suspect’s mother was a member and attended its events about once a month. A spokesman said he learned the suspect’s mother was struggling financially around 2002, but added: ‘We don’t know what the causes were or how they affected the family situation.
The suspect himself was never a member of the church, the spokesperson said.
The church said it received a message of support from Abe at an event it hosted, but the former prime minister was not a registered member of the church and he did not sit on its advisory board either. He added that he was intrigued by reports of alleged resentment against the group by the suspect and would “co-operate fully” with police.
But public distrust of the group – and a backlash over its fundraising practices – continues to rise after an August survey by Japan’s ruling LDP found that more than half of its legislators had ties to the church.
Several high-ranking officials, including former defense minister Nobuo Kishi, said they had received help in previous elections from church members.
Kishida purged those officials and apologized for their reported ties to the church, pledging to cut his party’s ties with the group.
Depending on the outcome of the looming investigation and a court ruling, the Unification Church could lose its status as a religious society and the associated tax benefits, NHK reported on Monday. The group, however, could still function as an entity.