Leader’s radio broadcast trips ‘all kinds of alarms’
TOKYO — The secretive sect being investigated in connection with the fatal nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system this week is a potent addition to the ranks of international extremist groups, with adherents capable of everything from random murder to mass suicide, according to police, scholars and disaffected members.
While investigators are still trying to pull together thorough information about the group, known as Omu Shinrikyo, many observers note ominous similarities between the sect and the Branch Davidians, the Christian cult whose holdout in their compound in Waco, Texas, ended in a fatal confrontation with federal authorities in April 1993.
“The Omu is similar to that one in Texas,” said Hiroshi Takagi, professor emeritus of religious sociology at Toyo University. He compared the Omu leader, Shoko Asahara, to David Koresh, the Davidians’ self-proclaimed messiah.
“Shoko Asahara’s blessing is a must,” Takagi said. “It is one-to-one relationship between each member and Asahara.”
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In a radio message broadcast from Vladivostok, Russia, on Thursday, Asahara called on cult members to become his arms and legs and face death to implement the group’s salvation plan.
A Western diplomat said the broadcast “set off all kinds of alarms” among countries concerned with international terrorism. The concern is heightened because the whereabouts of the Omu leadership are not known.
As the diplomat and other observers noted, Omu Shinrikyo members are more numerous than the Davidians, have access to large sums of money and have branches in at least four countries — Japan, Russia, Germany and the United States.
In addition, as massive raids on the cult’s facilities in Japan this week showed, the cult has stockpiled large amounts of chemicals and apparently has the know-how to make them into dangerous weapons.
Cult warehouses contained tons of chemicals that could have produced enough nerve gas to kill millions, a major Japanese newspaper reported this morning.
The national daily Yomiuri Shimbun quoted unnamed police officials as saying the cult had hoarded the ingredients, which it purchased through a pharmaceutical company it owned and which could have made enough sarin to kill 4.2 million people in an attack on an urban center.
“The Omu is capable of being very violent,” said one member, who insisted on anonymity out of fear of reprisals from others in the cult. “In their thinking, it is possible to believe that people of high virtue are allowed to cause suffering to people of low virtue . . . because they believe that the worse they suffer, the better reincarnation they get.”
The member said that if cultists were involved in the subway attack, “it is possible that they will repeat it. And I would not be at all surprised, if Asahara died, if cult members would follow him by mass suicide.”
Asahara, 40, the long-haired, visually impaired founder of the cult, attended a school for the blind in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. He migrated to Tokyo when he was 23 and worked here as an acupuncturist. His first brush with the law occurred in 1982, according to press reports, when he was arrested in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, for selling fake medicines.
In 1984, Asahara founded a yoga group that gradually became more religiously oriented over the next three years as the guru traveled to India and met with Hindu and Buddhist leaders. In 1989 it became a registered religious group in Japan, with the name Omu Shinrikyo.
“Shinrikyo” means “religion of supreme truth” in Japanese; “omu” is the Japanese pronunciation of “aum,” a Sanskrit formulation representing creation, maintenance and destruction. The cult’s followers worship Shiva, the goddess of destruction, and Asahara. They buy Asahara’s hair to brew tea, and his bath water to pour over their rice.
“The basic theory is that if one engages in religious austerities, one should be able to attain absolute happiness in this lifetime,” the cult member said. “If one cannot make it, at least he can have a better reincarnation in the next life.”
Asahara tells his followers that Armageddon, the final, decisive battle between the forces of good and evil, will occur in 1997, and urges followers to train themselves well enough to survive a disaster in that year. The member said such talk is used to drive the cult’s adherents to ever greater austerities, which include hitting themselves and going without food.
Joining the group is easy and, at first, inexpensive — about $10 a month to be enrolled and receive the newsletter. But the price rises if a recruit wants to go to a training site, and large financial contributions are expected before a person attains the upper level of the cult.
The group has apparently amassed huge resources in its brief history. During Wednesday’s raids, police found more than $7 million in cash and large quantities of gold, according to press reports. Omu runs businesses ranging
from noodles stands and coffee shops to computer and software sales. It also operates its own hospital.
The extent of cult membership and activities in the United States and Germany is not well known; they are not believed to be great. But Omu seems to have broader appeal in Russia, where it claims 30,000 members.
Asahara was greeted by leading Russian politicians when he visited Moscow in 1992 and was allowed to put on a concert of music and dance called “Death and Resurrection” in a hall of the Bolshoi Theater.
Omu has come under legal attack from an organization of families of young members that this month succeeded in having much of the cult’s property in Russia confiscated. Work on the hospital has stopped and broadcasts have been curtailed. Omu’s ability to broadcast from Russia to Japan was canceled a few days after the subway attack on Monday.
A senior Japanese law-enforcement source said yesterday that the group’s Russian connections were cause for grave concern. Some officials said Omu has brought chemical technicians as well as helicopters and gas-detection devices to Japan from Russia.
“I think the former KGB and Russian mafias will stick by this group”
because they have so much money, he said.
Takagi, the Toyo University specialist on religious societies, said that both the strong emphasis on personal austerity among believers and the harsh publicity now being directed at the organization could increase the unity and extremism of the cult.
“Because they live in a community, the more severe the austerities become, the more fanatic people become,” Takagi said. “And the more pressure they receive, the more strict the cult becomes.
“They seem to become more and more aggressive.”
Fred Kaplan, chief of the Globe’s Moscow bureau, contributed to this report.