TOKYO, Wednesday, March 22— The religious sect that was raided this morning has been in frequent disputes with the Japanese Government, and it says the Government staged the terrorist attack on the subway system with sarin gas to frame the cult's members.
"Aum Shinrikyo has absolutely nothing to do with this current sarin incident in the subways," said Yoshinobu Aoyama, a 35-year-old lawyer who has recently become the main spokesman for the group, at a news conference on Tuesday. "The mass media describe us as a secretive, closed and dubious group which is involved in weird activities. They created such images of us, and I want to deny that clearly."
"Aum has been suffering by being under suspicion," said Mr. Aoyama. "The parties staging the incident must be receiving some benefit, and so according to this logic, the authorities schemed up this incident."
News reports have been unflattering, although the Japanese press has not directly linked the subway killings to the sect, whose monks and nuns embrace a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism and devote their lives exclusively to religious activities, even to the point of quitting their jobs.
Aum Shinrikyo, which the cult translates as "teaching of the truth," says it practices a primitive or fundamental form of Buddhism. Its highest god is Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction, and it stresses supernatural powers, such as extrasensory perception, levitation and healing. The leader, Shoko Asahara, formed the sect 11 years ago around the word Aum, a mantra the sect says evokes the transience of worldy things.
Although the sect says "freedom of illness" is one of its basic principles, Mr. Asahara is reportedly sick with a liver ailment and has not appeared in public recently.
Japanese news reports say that when the young disciples pray with the sect, they are required to renounce their families to show the strength of their faith. As a result, many parents have sued the sect under charges of illegal confinement or even abduction, and the families have reportedly formed an association to oppose the sect.
At the two-hour news conference called by the group on Tuesday, Aum Shinrikyo strongly attacked the Government and police authorities for accusing the sect of participating in a series of recent kidnappings, including a case that apparently gave rise to this morning's raid on the sect: The kidnapping of the 68-year-old brother of a sect member.
The brother, who opposed his sister's plan to donate large sums of money to the group, was taken into a van and has not been seen since. The police reportedly discovered fingerprints that belong to a sect member on the registration form of a van believed to have been used in the kidnapping.
Japanese television said this fingerprint was used as the basis for the raid on 25 branches of the sect.
On Sunday, a day before the attack on the subways, the police raided the sect's Osaka headquarters, arresting three Japanese sect members in connection with the kidnapping of a 21-year-old university student. Aum Shinrikyo says that the student, who was a member of the sect, was pressured by his parents into leaving it.
Aum filed a suit demanding about $215,000 in damages against the police for that raid.
At the news conference, the sect sharply criticized the Japanese press and authorities for drawing links between the groups and sarin, the poison gas believed to have been used in the subway attack. But much mystery surrounds the cult and its battles with the authorities.
In 1993, residents complained of noxious white fumes emitting from a Tokyo building owned by Aum Shinrikyo, but police were not allowed to enter to investigate.
Then last summer, residents in a village called Kamiku Isshiki, where the group has a regional headquarters, complained of eye and nose irritation, and several months later, by-products of sarin were found in the village, which is in Yamanashi Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo.
In January, Aum Shinrikyo sued a local businessman, accusing him of spreading sarin into the group's sites in the village. The businessman has filed a countersuit.
On Tuesday, Mr. Aoyama said that the sect has no sarin-producing installations and does not import the poison.
"I know what kind of a substance sarin is, and only such parties as the American military could make and keep and use such a substance," Mr. Aoyama said. "So, the culprit must be someone related to the military or to the authorities, or else someone behind the authorities."
Mr. Aoyama did not appear to be implicating the American military. Rather, he was criticizing the Japanese Government.
"What I worry about," he said, "is the possibility of a raid based not on the law but on public opinion that has been misled by a news media that is calling for a raid."
"There is worry that the authorities would murder en masse the Aum members, making it look like a mass suicide -- we have been oppressed that severely," Mr. Aoyama said.
Aum Shinrikyo says it has 10,000 members in Japan, 30,000 in Russia and small offices in New York, Sri Lanka and Germany. Japan has no shortage of Buddhist monks and believers, but Aum Shinrikyo stands out because its practices appear to be more extreme than those of other sects, according to Hiromi Shimada, an associate professor of religious studies at Japan Women's University.
Most Buddhist monks in Japan may marry and tend to dress in decorative robes, whereas Aum monks cannot marry and they dress much more simply.
Because some of the principles of the cult differ radically from those of mainstream Buddhists in Japan, there is enormous friction between the sect and the rest of society.
"They are hated by ordinary people in Japan," said Mr. Shimada.
At the same time, he said, the sect members tend to be peaceful people and would not "get any benefit" from violence.
New York Times, March 22, 1995, Sheryl WuDunn