Unification Church's ex-member explains how it gains political influence Unification Church's ex-member explains how it gains political influence
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Unification Church's ex-member explains how it gains political influence

    NHK WORLD
    Senior Correspondent
    Japanese politicians say they're cutting ties with the controversial former Unification Church after its influence came to light with the July murder of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

    Abe's alleged killer says his motive was wrongdoing by the group, which he says destroyed his family. A former member described the group to NHK as a "cult."

    American Steven Hassan welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio's promise to sever all links between his party members and the controversial organization.

    He knows how it operates, having spent two-and-a-half years as a member of what was then the Unification Church. It is now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

    These days, Hassan helps people exit the group. But there was a time when he believed he had been chosen by God to bring about a new world order.

    Moon Sun Myung, founder of the Unification Church, blesses more than 4,000 followers after their mass wedding in New York, 1982.
    Moon Sun Myung, founder of the Unification Church, blesses more than 4,000 followers after their mass wedding in New York, 1982.

    Recruitment

    Hassan was a 19-year-old college student dealing with a relationship breakup when three women invited him to an event in the 1970s.

    They did not tell him at first that they were part of the Unification Church, the religious group headed by Moon Sun Myung and founded in South Korea in the 1950s.

    They ended up convincing him to join their church.

    Steven Hassan, a cult expert who help people exit the group.
    Cult expert Steven Hassan is a former member of the Unification Church. Now he helps people exit the group.

    Hassan spoke about what he calls the ruthless approach behind the group's recruitment tactics, as well as its regular operations.

    "Moon talked openly about how lying was fine for God," he says.

    "If you lie to recruit somebody or to protect the group from some lawsuits or some bad PR, that's okay."

    Hassan climbed the ranks fast. He says he was told by Moon, "You can control people by making them dependent on you, and that will allow you to dictate policy to them."

    "The (approach at the) beginning was always to be helpful," says Hassan, who notes the church readily sought political influence with offers like, 'Can we donate to your campaign? Can we give you some free office workers or campaign people, to help your re-election?'

    "Most politicians…don't think about the unethical aspects of this. And there's this contagion effect," he says.

    Steven Hassan at a Unification Church picnic when he was a follower.
    Steven Hassan at a Unification Church picnic when he was a follower. He says members approached him in a very friendly manner.

    Political activities

    Hassan says he was drawn into political activities through what were believed to be fronts for the Unification Church.

    In 1974, he and hundreds of members -- known as Moonies after their leader's name -- went to the United States Capitol for what was called the National Prayer and Fast for the Watergate Crisis, to show support for President Richard Nixon.

    "Moon says God wants Nixon to be president despite Watergate -- and we are going to do a lot of media to call attention to how there's grassroots support for Nixon, that people don't want him to resign," he said.

    "Moon was shocked when Nixon later resigned."

    Unification Church founder Moon Sun Myung making speech.
    Unification Church founder Moon Sun Myung supported President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

    Leaving the church

    Hassan says the concept of 'family' took on a different meaning once he joined the church. Members were taught that their birth parents were satanic.

    "For example, my father and mother were Milton and Estelle Hassan," he says. "I was told they were my physical parents only because they were satanic. Moon and his wife were my true parents. And so, all of my obligations were to the true family. Not to my satanic family."

    But it was his real family who helped him get out.

    When he was aged in his 20s, Hassan crashed his car into a truck after falling asleep at the wheel. At the time he was engaged in fundraising night and day for the Unification Church.

    He was hospitalized for two weeks, then convalesced at his sister's house to recover away from the group's constant reinforcement.

    During that time he says his family was desperate to 'deprogram' him.

    Hassan remembers realizing that he had been caught up in a world of lies. That moment was like "an elaborate house of cards" collapsing, he says.

    "Experiences that had been suppressed started coming into my consciousness -- and ultimately these woke me up. I began realizing Moon was a liar, that I had heard him lie to me 10 times at least, and that he told me to lie to the other members as well as to the public."

    "That means he can't be a representative of the God of truth."

    Moon Sun Myung and his wife at a mass wedding in New York, 1982.
    Moon Sun Myung and his wife at a mass wedding in New York, 1982.

    Influence in Japan

    The political fallout from the fatal shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has shown that the church is well connected in Japan.

    The alleged gunman, Yamagami Tetsuya, told police he was angry with the group because it had caused problems in his family. He targeted the former prime minister because he thought Abe had close links.

    A spokesperson for the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, formerly known as the Unification Church, stated at a news conference in August that the group has not supported any particular political party. "But it is a fact that our affiliated groups have been proactively involved in politics. We believe we have joined hands with politicians to build a better country."

    A picture of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo who was shot dead by a gunman on July 8.
    Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was shot dead by a gunman on July 8. The suspect told police he targeted Abe because he believed the former prime minister had close ties to the former Unification Church.

    Almost 180 lawmakers who belong to Japan's main ruling Liberal Democratic Party have subsequently revealed they have some connection with the church.

    Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has apologized on behalf of his party and is calling on members to break off all ties.

    Some opposition party lawmakers have also revealed their ties to the group.

    Hassan says this is a good start, but "the way to cut ties with the group is for every politician to make a public statement that they now realize it's a criminal organization that brainwashes people, takes people away from their families, and is anti-democratic."

    Links to American politics

    In the US, the religious group is well connected in Republican circles. Last year, former President Donald Trump was a keynote speaker at an event sponsored by Moon's widow.

    "I would love it if American politicians would have that same pressure on them, to distance themselves from the authoritarian cult," Hassan says. He's calling for legislative change to outlaw groups like the Unification Church.

    A recorded messege from former US President Donald Trump sent to a group linked to the former Unification Church in 2021.
    Former US President Donald Trump sent a recorded message to an event organized by the Universal Peace Federation, a group linked to the former Unification Church, in 2021.

    A global web of entities

    Larry Zilliox, a researcher who worked with Hassan, has uncovered a list of entities associated with the former Unification Church that is 71 pages long.

    The ever-expanding list comprises a global web of religious, political, business, and cultural front groups.

    Hassan says calling the group the Unification Church underplays its significance.

    "It is 'the Moon organization'," he says. "Because it's a pyramid with (the late) Moon at the top, who had total control over everything."