By Kantaro Komiya

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan’s economic revitalisation minister stepped down on Monday after growing criticism of his failure to fully explain his ties to a church group that critics say is akin to a cult, a move that will be a blow to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Daishiro Yamagiwa, the first person to resign from Kishida’s government since he took power last year, became the highest profile political casualty thus far from a widening scandal sparked by the July killing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

His quitting is a severe blow a leader whose support has tumbled to record lows amid revelations about connections between nearly half of the lawmakers of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Unification Church.

Yamagiwa later told reporters he regretted his actions but stopped short of an apology and said he would remain as lawmaker since he had done nothing illegal.

“It was pointed out that my explanation was delayed. As a result, I caused inconvenience to the government,” Yamagiwa said.

He added that he regretted attending so many church gatherings and giving the organisation recognition as a result.

Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki was quoted by Jiji news agency as saying he was surprised by Yamagiwa’s resignation and added that care must be taken that there is no impact on a government economic package due to be approved later this week.

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The church, founded in South Korea in the 1950s and famous for its mass weddings, has came under the spotlight following the July 8 assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The suspect in Abe’s shooting bore a grudge against the church, alleging it bankrupted his mother and he blamed Abe for promoting it, according to his social media posts and news reports.

Since the killing, evidence has come to light of deep and longstanding ties between the church and LDP members.

The LDP has acknowledged that many individual lawmakers have ties to the church but have said there was no organisational link to the party.

Kishida last week ordered an investigation into the church.

Calls from the opposition for Yamagiwa to resign have risen in recent days but he has said he would stay and carry out his duties.

This month, a Jiji news agency poll showed that approval for Kishida’s government had fallen below 30% for the first time, a danger level below which his government might find it hard to carry out his political agenda.

Critics say the church built ties with politicians in Japan to attract followers and gain legitimacy while politicians gained access to church members for help with campaigns.

The Unification Church was founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, an anti-communist and self-declared messiah.

Critics have for years vilified his ministry as a dangerous cult and questioned its finances and how it indoctrinates its followers, often derided as “Moonies”.

(Reporting by Mariko Katsumura, Writing by Elaine LiesEditing by Chang-Ran Kim, Robert Birsel, William Maclean)