South Korean church known for mass weddings in spotlight after Abe's killing

Mr Tomihiro Tanaka (left), president of Unification Church's Japanese branch, observing a moment of silence for Mr Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on July 11, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL - On a cold winter day in February 2020, a mass wedding was held in South Korea despite mounting fears of the coronavirus outbreak.

It featured some 6,000 newlyweds, many of whom flew in from different parts of the world to meet their other half for the first time on the wedding day itself.

They were all members of the Unification Church, a controversial religious group that has been labelled a cult by critics and banned in Singapore, but is still thriving globally, especially in Japan and the United States.

The church is now hogging headlines, after a Japanese man fatally shot Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe for his apparent connections to the religious group.

Local reports said the man bore a grudge against the group as his mother made a huge donation to it and became bankrupt, causing his family to fall into financial woes.

The Japanese branch of the South Korea-based church has since confirmed the mother's membership

In a separate statement issued on Wednesday (July 13), the Korean headquarters confirmed that the gunman test-fired his homemade weapon the night before the assassination at a building in Japan that was formerly used as a church. 

But the Japanese branch denied links to Mr Abe or the Liberal Democratic Party.

Yet the church is known to have courted and established close ties with many conservative politicians, not only in South Korea but also in Japan and the US.

Founded in 1954 by the late self-proclaimed messiah Moon Sun-myung, the Unification Church is best known for holding mass weddings and running an international business empire known as Tongil (Korean for unification) Group, which has stakes in construction, healthcare, food, media and leisure all over the world.

It owns several resorts in South Korea, including Yongpyong Ski Resort of Winter Sonata fame.

Followers of the church are nicknamed "Moonies" in a reference to the founder's surname, although they call themselves "unificationists".

Also known as Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church was said to have three million followers at its peak after spreading to the West in the late 1950s, although numbers have fallen in recent years. It now has 300,000 members in Japan and up to 200,000 in South Korea.

Critics have lambasted the church, now run by Mr Moon's wife after his death in 2012, for its controversial practices, such as demanding huge donations from followers and selling spiritual items like seals, wooden beads and ginseng extract from door to door.

The mass wedding ritual started by Mr Moon, officially known as a "blessing ceremony", has also been criticised as a cult-like practice made possible only with brainwashing.

The first of such weddings took place in South Korea in 1992 with 20,000 people, including Japanese pop star Junko Sakurada and Olympic gymnast Hiroko Yamasaki.

In fact, an "overwhelming majority" of the brides were Japanese and a "vast majority" of donations received by the church were from Japan, highlighting the church's "enormous success" in the country after a branch was set up in 1959, according to South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh.

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Mr Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960, is known to have paved the way for the church's entry into Japan and used his link to the group to garner financial support.

The church also found success in the US, where Mr Moon was named Person of the Year by Newsweek magazine in 1976 and a mass event in Washington drew over 300,000 participants.

The Washington Post reported that the church spent millions of dollars a year on programmes such as conferences and lobbying activities in the US, so as to build a positive public image and forge an alliance with conservative politicians.

Former US president Donald Trump, who leans conservative, is known to have links with the church.

Mr Abe became the first foreign leader to meet Mr Trump after his election in 2016 because the church had "personal connections" to both sides and helped to mediate the meeting, according to Japanese magazine Shincho 45.

The two men also spoke last September at a virtual conference called Rally For Hope, which was hosted by the Unification Church and other organisations including independent non governmental group Universal Peace Federation. The two groups share the same founders. 

In Japan, a network of 300 lawyers have sued the church for its controversial practices and urged Japanese politicians including Mr Abe to stop supporting it.

In a petition signed last year in response to Mr Abe's speech, the lawyers accused the church of suppressing the human rights of followers, breaking up families, and causing "serious adverse effect" on Japanese society.

"In order for Mr Abe to continue being an active politician, it is not a good idea for him to cooperate with the Unification Church and its affiliated groups and support their events," they said.

"We strongly urge you to consider your reputation and do not repeat this kind of action."

During a press conference held on Wednesday, the lawyers said that the Unification Church continues to seek huge donations and sell spiritual items today - even though the Japanese branch had said their attitude towards donations changed after 2009. 

The lawyers released documents showing that they made 34,537 consultations from 1986 to 2021 regarding monetary losses of about 123.7 billion yen due to large donations or purchase of expensive spiritual items, according to The Asahi Shimbun. 

They also cited how a Tokyo court in February 2020 ordered the church to return about 4.7 million yen to a former follower on the grounds that the money was donated "though an unfair method of stirring up anxiety and fear". 

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