Unification Church distances itself from Abe’s assassination

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Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the Japan branch of South Korea’s Unification Church, speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Monday, July 11, 2022. The Japan branch of South Korea’s Unification Church acknowledged Monday as its member the mother of the suspect in the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but denied that it demanded large donations from anyone.(Yohei Fukai/Kyodo News via AP)

TOKYO (AP) — The Unification Church confirmed the mother of the man accused of assassinating former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a member and said it was cooperating with the police investigation into possible motives.

Police say the suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told investigators he wanted to kill Abe because of his apparent connection to an organization. Some Japanese media gave his mother’s donations to the church and her subsequent bankruptcy as a motive for the assassination.

Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the Unification Church’s Japan branch, declined to comment on the specifics of the donations Monday. Speaking in generalities, he confirmed some people have made generous donations, but stressed none was forced.

Also known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church was founded in South Korea by the late Sun Myung Moon. It is known to have hundreds of thousands of followers in Japan.

“Trying to understand how such hatred may have possibly led to the killing is totally perplexing,” Tanaka said.

Abe was not a church member, but may have spoken at affiliated groups’ events, Tanaka said.

Abe was fatally shot Friday in Nara in western Japan while campaigning for Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Video and photos taken by people in the crowd show the suspect pulling out a homemade gun. Two smoke-filled blasts were fired. Abe collapsed and later died at a hospital.

Funeral services were being held Tuesday at a Tokyo Buddhist temple.

“This is something that should never have happened, and I feel a deep outrage,” Tanaka said, bowing deeply. “My heart aches that Japan has lost a loved and respected leader.”

Such bows are part of Japanese protocol to express condolences and do not necessarily signify admission of guilt.

Tanaka brushed off media reports as speculation, stressing the motive was still unclear.

Tanaka said Yamagami’s mother joined the church in the late 1990s and has been participating in church events about once a month lately. There were years in between during which she did not come at all, he said.

Although the church has had scandals related to donations, compliance measures were set up in 2009, and there have not been any major troubles since then, Tanaka said.

“The amount of donations is up to each individual,” he said. “We are grateful to those who give large donations, but nothing is required.”

The news conference started with Tanaka bowing in a solemn moment of prayer. “As a religious leader, I take this extremely seriously,” Tanaka said of Abe’s assassination.

Japanese media reports say Yamagami’s mother declared bankruptcy in 2002. Tanaka said records dating back 20 years couldn’t be confirmed.

Yamagami is in prosecutors’ custody and not available for comment.

The Unification Church has been embroiled in controversies over the years. Since its founding in 1954, Moon built a business empire with hundreds of ventures in more than a half dozen countries, from hospitals and universities to newspapers and a ballet troupe.

The controversial practices include mass arranged weddings, often pairing followers from different countries, aimed at building a multicultural religious world.

In Japan, famous actresses have joined the church, while politicians courted friendly ties because of the church’s influence. The Japan branch was founded in 1959. Church spokesperson Ahn Ho-yeul said the church has 300,000 believers in Japan, and from 150,000 to 200,000 members in South Korea.

The church’s beliefs are based on the idea that love in marriage and family is what God wants for world peace and harmony.

The majority of Japanese people adhere to a mix of Shinto and Buddhism.

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Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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