A doomsday millennium cult, members of which have been linked by police to the terrorists who killed 12 people in a sarin gas attack in Japan, has established a London base and recruited scores of members in Britain.
The Sukyo Mahikari cult - said by former members to propagate neo-Nazi and anti-Jewish propaganda - was denounced last year by witnesses at an official parliamentary inquiry as "dangerous".
Police have linked some members of the cult to Aum Shinrikyo, the terrorist sect whose leaders are facing charges of mass murder after the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
Former members of Sukyo Mahikari, which has successfully applied for charitable status in Britain, say it is preparing for a "baptism of fire" that could end the world next year. The cult's Japanese supremacist leadership says only its members will survive.
A prediction that governments might be destroyed by using the subway appears in textbooks published by the organisation. Some members in Britain are stockpiling food in the event of a social upheaval or disaster.
An undercover reporter from The Sunday Times spent a month at the group's base in south London. Cult leaders claim they have recruited more than 300 members in Britain and have established a presence in Manchester, Leeds, northeast England and Wales.
Members also said they expected the end of the world as early as next year. Former members interpret this as meaning they are planning some sort of action as the millennium approaches
The cult's literature, handed to the reporter at the cult's London base, states: "Under the present circumstances there is the terrible possibility that mankind might be annihilated by the baptism of fire." Former members say this is the same language used by other cults such as the Solar Temple, where members committed mass suicide three years ago, and Aum Shinrikyo
Like Aum, the cult recruits middle-class professionals. Members are encouraged to donate cash as soon as possible. The undercover reporter was asked on just her second visit to the charity for a cash contribution. On each subsequent visit it was suggested that a contribution would be welcome.
Each morning members at the London headquarters would join in an unusual prayer ritual involving chanting, clapping and bowing at a small, wooden altar.
Cash donations are placed in an open envelope and slipped into a wooden box at the altar. Contributors are asked to give their names and the amount of their donation on a slip of paper which is put in the envelope
Former members in Europe, Japan and Australia said that on occasion members hand over payments of thousands of pounds and gifts of property.
Police and parliamentary bodies in five countries have expressed concerns about Sukyo Mahikari - already expelled from one African state - which was founded by Yoshikazu Okada, a former Japanese imperial army officer. He played a key role in the massacre of 200,000 men, women and children in Nanking, China, in the 1930s. Financial records show that the British group has given 20,000 pounds to its European and African headquarters in Luxembourg; the headquarters is based in the Chateau d'Ansembourg, bought from Count Gaston d'Ansembourg in 1987 for pounds760,000. The count is the cult's leader for Europe and Africa.
The Luxembourg headquarters is already at the centre of a scandal in which 42,000 pounds of European Union money was allegedly used to refurbish the cult's buildings. A dossier of new allegations about the cult's financial affairs in Belgium is expected to be handed to police there within the next two weeks. It was in Belgium that witnesses described the cult as one of the most dangerous in the country.
The cult has also come under scrutiny from the authorities in France, where a report by a parliamentary committee found it was "dangerous". Rene Poux, of the Families and Individuals Defence support group, said official concerns centred on the way cult leaders extracted money from their 12,000 French members. "Huge funds are collected which are then sent on to Japan," he said.
However, a spokeswoman for Sukyo Mahikari last week dismissed claims that it was linked to Aum Shinrikyo. "It is an absolute nonsense. It is true that a member of Aum in Australia had been a member of Mahikari. But as far as I know that's it," she said. "We don't have a doomsday obsession but it is true that some members in the British branch are preparing for great change and this does involve stockpiling materials like food. But only a few do this.
"We are not anti-Jewish. Our textbooks do mention the subway prediction but this is just something our founder believed might happen."