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[KH Explains] What is Unification Church and why is it controversial?

Widely known for mass wedding ceremonies, S. Korea-founded religious sect in spotlight in wake of assassination of former Japanese PM

Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the Japan branch of South Korea’s Unification Church, at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan on Monday. (AP-Yonhap)
Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the Japan branch of South Korea’s Unification Church, at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan on Monday. (AP-Yonhap)
The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, famously known as the Unification Church, has come under scrutiny following the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japanese media have reported that Tetsuya Yamagami, the man behind the fatal attack, mentioned a religious group as his motive to the investigators. He believed the former PM was linked to the religious group, which he said brought financial problems to the family after his mother donated huge sums to the sect.

On Monday, the Unification Church confirmed that his mother was a member of the organization and has been participating in a church event once a month, though details, including how much she paid in donations, are yet to be disclosed.


Powerful organization


The Unification Church was founded in 1954 in Seoul by the late Rev. Moon Sun-myung and has since grown exponentially, gaining solid footholds in Japan and the US. Some estimate the group has over 3 million followers around the world, though the exact figures are difficult to establish.

In a 2011 press conference, the group said there were some 19,000 followers in South Korea who regularly pay offerings.

As the name suggests, the religious movement’s vision is to create “one world under the sky” that extends the boundaries of race and nationality.

Its members are sometimes called “Moonies” -- a colloquial term with a negative connotation.

To the wider public, the religious group is well-known for mass wedding ceremonies during which thousands of couples who are members of the church get married together at venues like stadiums.

In 2020, Some 30,000 people from 64 countries, including married and unmarried couples, took part in a mass wedding ceremony at Cheongshim World Peace Center in Gyeonggi Province. The ceremony, which also marked the 100th anniversary of founder Moon’s birth, was live-streamed globally.

In 2021, the group held an online event dubbed the “Rally of Hope” and its star-studded lineup, mainly consisting of conservative politicians, stunned many.

The list of speakers included former US President Donald Trump, former Japanese PM Abe and current Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon.

“In honoring Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon and all of you, I would like to express my profound thanks for your tireless efforts in resolving disputes in the world,” Abe said during his pre-recorded speech. Han is the widow of the late founder Moon, and has been leading the church since Moon’s death in 2012.

In the speech, Abe also called for more solidarity between Japan, the US, Taiwan and South Korea, which he described as “countries that share the values of freedom and democracy.”

In response to the reports that he was assassinated over his link to the Unification Church, the group said in a statement that it is hard to “understand with common sense” that the former Japanese PM was targeted because of a video speech he delivered.

Outside the realm of religion, the Unification Church has a massive business empire spanning across vast fields of interest, including sports, media, retail and education.

It owns several media outlets around the world, including the Segye Times, a daily newspaper in South Korea, as well as United Press International and the Washington Times in the United States.

A South Korean conglomerate Tongil Group is the church’s key business arm. “Tongil” means unification. The group is also behind Sun Moon University, a four-year university located in Asan, South Chungcheong Province.

The church is also believed to have massive assets and business interests in the US, Japan and elsewhere. An indication of this, a 2021 New York Times article titled “the Untold Story of Sushi in America” shed light on how Moon and his followers helped popularize sushi in 1980s America.


Controversy


As Moon, the late founder, is seen as the Messiah and the Second Coming of Jesus among his followers, Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, consider the religious movement as heretical.

“The Unification Church is considered heresy because it treats Moon Sun-myung and (wife) Han as Messiahs,” said professor Tak Ji-il at Busan Presbyterian University.

“In their scripture known as the Divine Principle, Jesus Christ is defined as someone who failed.

In China, the Unification Church is considered a cult, the scholar explained, due to the organization’s controversial practices like mass weddings. It has been claimed that some are talked into marriage with another follower and migrating to South Korea while others have been pressured into making donations, he added.

In a press conference on Monday, however, the Japanese branch of the organization said it was of her own free will that the mother of the suspect behind Abe’s killing made donations to the organization.

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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