Unification Church leader Rev. Moon dies at age 92

GAPYEONG, South Korea – The Rev. Sun Myung Moon was a self-proclaimed messiah who built a global business empire. He called 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 died Monday 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 told The Associated Press. Moon’s wife and children were at his side, Ahn said. He was 92.

The church will hold a 13-day mourning period beginning today and start accepting mourners Thursday at a multipurpose gym at its nearby religious center, the church said in a statement. The funeral will be held Sept. 15, and Moon will be buried at nearby Cheonseung Mountain, where his home is, the statement said.

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 U.S., 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 included the Washington Times newspaper; Connecticut’s Bridgeport University; the New Yorker Hotel, a midtown Manhattan art deco landmark, and a seafood distribution firm that supplies sushi to Japanese restaurants across the U.S. 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. Moon’s followers were often called “Moonies,” a term many found pejorative.

Born in 1920 in a rural part of what is today North Korea, Moon said he was 16 when Jesus Christ first appeared to him and told him to finish the work he had begun on Earth 2,000 years earlier. Moon, who tried to preach the gospel in the North, was imprisoned there in the late 1940s for alleged spying for South Korea; he disputed the charge.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he went to South Korea. After divorcing his first wife, he married Hak Ja Han Moon in 1960. They have 10 surviving sons and daughters, according to the church.