SEOUL, South Korea — Thousands of Unification Church followers rallied in South Korea on Thursday protesting negative Japanese media coverage of their religion after the suspect in the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe blamed the church for his family’s troubles.
The protesters, mostly Japanese followers who settled in South Korea after marrying Korean spouses, insisted the Japanese reports were being driven by anti-Unification Church pundits, lawyers and Protestant pastors who “groundlessly” blame their church for Abe’s death.
They said that such media reports and commentary have unsettled the church’s Japanese followers, who already face social persecution and fears of being pressured by family members to recant their faith.
There have been cases where Japanese Unification Church followers were kidnapped or confined by relatives attempting to deprogram them from their religion. An extreme case involved a man named Toru Goto, who was confined in a Tokyo apartment for more than 12 years until 2008 as family members tried to force him to renounce his faith.
Protesters at the Seoul rally chanted slogans denouncing the situation in Japan as religious repression and waved signs written both in Korean and Japanese that read “Stop the assault on human rights” and “Never forgive the business of kidnapping and confinement.”
“Right now, all the believers the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in Japan are being exposed to outdated witch hunting driven by biased and distorted media reports,” a tearful Yamada Taeko said on a stage, using the church’s formal name.
“We call for all media outlets to immediately take a leading role in ensuring that freedom of religion is properly protected in my beloved homeland Japan,” she said.
The Unification Church says there are about 10,000 Japanese-born followers currently living in South Korea after marrying Korean spouses. It had expected Thursday’s protest to draw about 4,000 people.
The church’s following in Japan and its deep ties with the country’s conservative politicians became a subject of intense media coverage since Abe’s assassination on July 8.
The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, reportedly targeted the former prime minister over his alleged ties with the Unification Church, which the man hated because he believed his mother’s massive donations to the church ruined his family.
Abe, in a video message to the church-affiliated Universal Peace Foundation in September 2021, praised its work toward peace on the Korean Peninsula and its focus on family values. Some experts say Abe’s video appearance may have motivated his assailant.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his Cabinet last week in an apparent bid to distance his administration from the Unification Church over its ties to Abe and senior ruling party members. Seven ministers were removed, including Abe’s younger brother, former Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, who admitted that church followers were volunteers in past election campaigns.
The South Korean church, known for its mass weddings and its late founder who called himself a messiah, built close ties with many Japanese conservative lawmakers. They include members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan almost uninterrupted since its inception in 1955.
The church was founded in Seoul in 1954 by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whose staunch anti-communism gained strong backing from Japanese rightwing politicians, including Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who also was a prime minister.
The church’s fundraising was especially aggressive in Japan, according to its critics, because Moon taught followers there that they needed to give more money to atone for sins committed by their ancestors who colonized the Korean Peninsula, which was controlled by Tokyo from 1910 to 1945.
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