The Japanese government decided Thursday to seek a court order to dissolve the Unification Church after a nearly yearlong probe into the controversial group over its history of coercing members into making large donations, culture minister Masahito Moriyama said.

With the order, the church will be stripped of its religious corporation status and associated tax benefits, but can continue to exist as a group and conduct activities in Japan.

The government has judged the church has engaged in financially damaging donation solicitation, Moriyama told reporters, adding the group has been ordered by the courts to pay as much as 20 billion yen ($134 million) in compensation to around 1,550 victims.

The Unification Church has inflicted suffering on many people and violated civil law, which "deviated from the intended purpose of a religious corporation," said the education, culture, sports, science and technology minister.

The government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made the decision, with a request expected to be filed on Friday, after collecting opinions at a gathering of a religious organization council within the Cultural Affairs Agency.

Photo taken on Oct. 12, 2023, shows a building in Tokyo that houses the headquarters of the Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. (Kyodo)

Kishida told reporters at the prime minister's office on Thursday that the decision relied on "objective facts" in accordance with the procedures under the religious corporation law.

The council's members "unanimously" endorsed the proposal, Moriyama said. The Unification Church said in a statement later in the day that, "It is deeply regrettable the government has made such a grave decision based on biased information."

The agency collected testimonies from more than 170 people as part of its investigation into the group's solicitation of donations from followers, said Moriyama.

The Tokyo District Court is likely to deliver a judgment based on the evidence submitted by the government about the organization, founded in South Korea by a staunch anti-communist in 1954 and formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

The Unification Church, which stirred controversy decades ago in Japan, came under fresh scrutiny after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was fatally shot during an election campaign speech in July 2022 over his perceived links to the group.

Abe was targeted by the alleged killer Tetsuya Yamagami, whose mother's large donations to the Unification Church severely impacted his family. He claimed he targeted Abe partly because Abe's grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped bring the church to Japan in the 1960s.

A series of revelations about ties between lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Kishida, and the Unification Church badly damaged the government's reputation.

Kishida said Thursday that LDP members have "thoroughly" cut relations with the Unification Church, amid concerns that the religious organization had been trying to wield influence in the political arena.

With approval ratings for his Cabinet remaining sluggish, Kishida, who took office in October 2021, apparently aims to regain public trust by taking a firm stance against the group, often labeled as a cult by critics, observers said.

Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Masahito Moriyama (C, facing camera) speaks during a meeting of the Religious Juridical Persons Council in Tokyo on Oct. 12, 2023, expressing his intention to seek a court order to dissolve the Unification Church. (Kyodo) 

Under Japan's legal system, relevant authorities are allowed to ask courts to order a dissolution in cases where a religious corporation "commits an act which is clearly found to harm public welfare substantially."

If the government can prove that malicious and illegal acts occurred repeatedly at an organizational level, it can seek the group's dissolution. When that happens, it loses its tax benefits as a religious corporation.

So far, only two religious organizations have received a dissolution order from a Japanese court because of legal violations. One was the AUM Shinrikyo cult, which carried out the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system as well as a number of other serious crimes.

Given that it took around four months for the dissolution order to AUM to be issued following the filing of the request, the Unification Church's case is also expected to take considerable time.

The renewed focus on the Unification Church has highlighted the difficulties encountered by "second-generation" family members of its followers, who have experienced financial and other hardships due to their parents' devotion to the religion.

Since last November, the Cultural Affairs Agency has exercised its right to question the organization and obtain documents from it seven times, while also collecting statements from victims who were pressured into making huge donations.

Last December, Japan's parliament enacted a law to prohibit organizations from maliciously soliciting donations.

The Unification Church has claimed that engaging in activities that violate Japan's civil law should not be considered grounds for ordering its dissolution and that the government's questioning of the group is illegal.

In the 1980s, the Unification Church became notorious in Japan for spiritual sales, in which followers were pressured to buy jars and other items for exorbitant prices via the use of threats, such as invoking "ancestral karma" as a catalyst for misfortune.

Moreover, the group drew attention for holding mass wedding ceremonies, with some Japanese celebrities participating in one held in Seoul in 1992. But since then, there had been few media reports about the organization until the assassination of Abe.

Some long-time members of the Unification Church said they have collected over 53,000 petitions urging the government not to pursue a court order and sent them to Kishida and Moriyama, while gathering more than 27,000 signatures online.

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