GAPYEONG, SOUTH KOREA: The Rev. Sun Myung Moon was a self-proclaimed messiah who built a global business empire. He called both North Korean leaders and American presidents his friends, but spent time in prisons in both countries. His followers around the world cherished him, while his detractors accused him of brainwashing recruits and extracting money from worshippers.
These contradictions did nothing to stop the founder of the Unification Church from turning his religious vision into a worldwide movement and a multibillion-dollar corporation stretching from the Korean Peninsula to the United States.
Moon, 92, died early today at a church-owned hospital near his home in Gapyeong County, northeast of Seoul, two weeks after being hospitalized with pneumonia, Unification Church spokesman Ahn Ho-yeul said. Moon’s wife and children were at his side, Ahn said.
The church has begun a 13-day mourning period and will start accepting mourners Thursday at a multipurpose gym at its nearby religious center. The funeral will be held Sept. 15.
Moon founded his Bible-based religion in Seoul in 1954, a year after the Korean War ended, saying Jesus Christ personally called on him to complete his work.
The church gained fame — and notoriety — by marrying thousands of followers in mass ceremonies presided over by Moon himself. The couples often came from different countries and had never met, but were matched up by Moon in a bid to build a multicultural religious world.
Today, the Unification Church has 3 million followers, including 100,000 members in the United States, and has sent missionaries to 194 countries, Ahn said. But ex-members and critics say the figure is actually no more than 100,000 members worldwide.
The church’s holdings include the Washington Times newspaper; the New Yorker Hotel, a midtown Manhattan art deco landmark; and a seafood distribution firm that supplies sushi to Japanese restaurants across the United States. It gave the University of Bridgeport $110 million over more than a decade to keep the Connecticut school operating.
It acquired a ski resort, a professional football team and other businesses in South Korea. It also operates a foreign-owned luxury hotel in North Korea and jointly operates a fledgling North Korean automaker.
The church has been accused of using devious recruitment tactics and duping followers out of money. Parents of followers in the United States and elsewhere have expressed worries that their children were brainwashed into joining. The church has pointed out that many new religious movements faced similar accusations in their early years.