By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - Thousands of Unification Church members gathered in Seoul on Thursday to protest what they call discriminatory and unfair Japanese media coverage of their church since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's assassination.
The suspect in Abe's July 8 shooting, Tetsuya Yamagami, bore a grudge against the church, alleging it bankrupted his mother and blaming Abe for promoting it, according to his social media posts and news reports.
"Stop biased reporting and religious persecution!" demonstrators in the South Korean capital chanted in Korean and Japanese, holding placards reading "Respect religious freedom!" and "Stop hate speech" toward the church.
Longstanding links between the strongly anti-communist church, which critics call a cult, and Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have hurt the popularity of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government, prompting him to reshuffle his cabinet last week and say the church held no sway over the party.
Founded in South Korea in the 1950s by self-declared messiah Sun Myung Moon and known for its mass weddings, the group has faced criticism for its fundraising and other issues. The church rejects such views and says it is a legitimate religious movement.
Demonstrators at the central Seoul rally, who numbered about 4,000 according to a church spokesperson, called for respecting religious freedom and said a prayer to mourn Abe's death. Reuters could not independently verify the crowd size.
Participants said the Japanese press vilified the Unification Church, tying it to Abe's killing and exposing members to social discrimination, while police investigation of the shooting was still underway.
"The media is witch-hunting the family federation with groundless, sensational and biased reports day and night," said Taeko Yamada, a Japanese member who married a South Korean at a mass wedding, referring to the church's full name, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
Abe, who remained a powerful LDP politician until his death, appeared at an event hosted by an group affiliated with the church last September. He delivered a speech praising the affiliate's work for peace on the Korean peninsula, according to the church's website.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Soo-hyang Choi; Editing by William Mallard)