TOKYO, March 8, 2000 (Reuters) - The Tokyo metropolitan government refused on Wednesday to grant special tax status to the Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned by China's ruling Communist Party rulers who fear it poses a threat to their rule.
Beijing had asked Tokyo not to grant the group the special status, saying such a decision would sour relations between the capitals of Asia's most powerful nations.
The Falun Gong, a mix of Buddhism and Taoism designed to harness energy in the body, had applied to the Tokyo government for recognition as a "non-profit organisation" (NPO), which would have allowed it to be treated as a corporation rather than as a religious group. It has some 400 adherents in Japan.
A Tokyo government official said the application was rejected because of discrepancies in forms filed by the group.
"There was also some doubt about its assertions concerning its religious activities," she added.
Falun Gong supporter Masaaki Tsuruzono, one of five members of the Falun Dafa association in Japan who filed the application last November, said he was surprised and disappointed.
"I do not understand the reasons given by the Tokyo government and believe there was outside pressure," he added. "There was nothing wrong in the forms we filed.
"If this decision was in fact made in response to Chinese pressure, this is quite a problem."
Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a nationalist who is adamant in his disapproval of the Chinese government, originally brushed aside China's request as interference in the city's internal affairs, and many observers had expected him to support the group's application.
Ishihara has rarely shied away from challenging Beijing, and has angered it in the past by doubting its accounts of Japanese wartime atrocities.
He has said he wants to invite outgoing Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to Tokyo after Lee leaves office this year, a move also likely to infuriate China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province.
Beijing banned the Falun Gong last year, saying the sect brainwashed its followers, and had caused 1,400 deaths by instructing them to use Falun Gong practices rather than medicine to cure illnesses, or by driving them to suicide.
Japan has begun cracking down on cults recently amid fears the number of fringe religious groups is rising.
Aum Shinri Kyo, the doomsday religious cult accused of the fatal 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways, was placed under government surveillance in February and has since had its facilities raided by police on numerous occasions.
The 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway killed 12 and injured thousands. Aum guru Shoko Asahara preached that the world was ending and the group had to arm itself to prepare for various calamities.
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