Majuro, Marshall Islands -- In a span of two months, organizations affiliated with the controversial 81-year-old Rev. Sun Myung Moon spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to sponsor conferences in the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Palau and Japan. All featured heavy Pacific islands participation and all-expenses paid trips for attendees.
The three conferences in the Pacific were jointly sponsored by the International and Interreligious Federation for World Peace (IIFWP), an organization founded by Moon, who is also the founder and leader of the Unification Church.
Moon's emergence in the region has been swift. The IIFWP organized conferences in the three island countries during November and December, all of which were attended by a smorgasbord of high and mid-level government, community and church leaders, including several heads of state and former leaders.
Each was organized along the theme: "Building a Culture of Peace", with such sub-themes as "character education, family and global cooperation" (Majuro) and "universal values and public service" (Koror).
The World Media Conference in Tokyo in mid-January, subtitled "media in the new millennium: its contribution to quality of life and to world peace", drew many island media notables from Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere.
At the Majuro conference, top Moon people offered a $10 million fund for Pacific countries to tap for education. This followed the offer of $1 million for a high school in the Marshall Islands.
In a December sermon, quoted on his Internet Web site, Moon says of his sudden interest in the Pacific: "One nation has only 2,000 people, but I want to save it and help it become a member of the world community. America and Japan abandoned such nations, but I work with them. Someone has to pay attention, because the Pacific Ocean is in the position of the mother's womb for the two continents and for the planet Earth. There are many resources there. Who will be the owner? Let's march to the Pacific Ocean."
So who is Moon, and what's his angle for offering millions for education and flying leaders to conferences? Is it altruism, as officials in his organizations claim, or an attempt to penetrate and gain a foothold in a region that has been little touched by the Unification Church.
Moon's Unification Church (UC) gained fame and notoriety beginning in the 1970s for its aggressive recruiting tactics and the equally aggressive response by some family members of UC converts who forcibly removed their relatives from the UC and put them through "deprogramming" sessions.
If you check the Internet, the search engine "Yahoo" lists 758 web pages on Moon. In contrast, there are just 23 on actor Arnold Schwartznegger of "Terminator" fame, and eight for the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Many of them feature extraordinary stories from "ex-Moonies", who recount tales of deprivation, mind-control, and subservience in the UC. Others describe the hundreds of church, political, media and business organizations that Moon has established worldwide.
Moon's own website promotes the "Divine Principle", which follows basic Christian principles, but with substantive diversions from major religions whose "moral authority", Moon says, is being "severely questioned." Moon is also well known for leading mass weddings involving thousands of couples linked via satellite television transmission in many parts of the globe.
In staunchly Christian nations like the Marshall Islands, his presence has drawn heavy criticism from local church and community leaders -- part of which can be seen as antagonism toward a well-financed competitor, but which is also at least in part due to Moon's self-appointed status as "the messiah" whose mission on Earth is to carry out the uncompleted work of Jesus. Prominent Marshall Islands leader Wilfred Kendall, the Minister of Education, late last year publicly called Moon a "fascist and a liar."
But a top UC official told Pacific in response to the criticisms that much of the highly negative reaction to the Unification Church came during the 1970s when it was new to the U.S., and American church leaders saw the church as a threat. Similarly, while Moon's purchase of the financially troubled University of Bridgeport in Connecticut was subjected to harsh criticism in the media in the mid-1990s, that too has died down as people come to see that Bridgeport is committed to education, not promoting UC membership, said Neil A. Salonen, the university's president and a UC member since the mid-1960s.
Indeed, in recent years, while some on the religious right in America still do not publicly consort with Rev. Moon, most have been more than happy to accept his financial donations and participation.
Salonen and Joe A. Tully, President of Hawaii-based Pacific Rim Integrated Development, distributor of the Moon-owned Washington Times, said in a recent interview that Moon is committed to supporting educational developments in the Pacific Islands. They say that he is responding to needs rather than promoting his own agenda.
As people get more familiar with Moon's program and activities, Salonen said he believes that while individuals might choose not to participate or may disagree with their points of view, they won't view Moon or his organizations as "scary."
Both Salonen and Tully said that a global focus of Moon's is education, particularly for developing nations that have less access to educational opportunities -- as is the case in a number of Pacific islands. But Moon's pledge of $1 million for a high school in the Marshall Islands was not a preconceived idea or a plan for a "church-run" school, they said. Last October, Moon visited Majuro at the invitation of President Kessai Note. Flying in on his own jet, Moon spent most of his five days in the islands on boats trolling for tuna and marlin, though a state dinner was also held in his honor at which time Note lavished praise on Moon's international leadership.
Both Note and Salonen relate that during the October visit, Moon asked the President what the priority need of the country was. When Note said "education," Moon's response was to offer $1 million to build a high school.
Later, on return to the U.S., Moon felt it would be unfair to limit the pledge of education funding only to the Marshall Islands, so he advanced the offer of a $10 million education fund to which other Pacific islands could apply for assistance -- a pledge that was announced during an international conference held in Majuro in November that was jointly sponsored by the Marshall Islands government and IIFWP.
Note, who has taken a good deal of heat from opposition politicians and community leaders for his association with Moon, defended himself during parliamentary sessions in January in the lead-up to a vote of no confidence, which was defeated. Commenting that his connection with Moon was personal, not governmental, Note said that if someone wanted to provide no-strings-attached funding for education, there was no reason that the Marshalls, with its critical educational needs, shouldn't accept the help.
Among Pacific media people attending Moon organization-sponsored conferences, some know about the Moon connection (but don't always mention it when writing about their trips), some don't and some probably don't care.
Indeed the general attitude of many in the region who are accepting all expenses paid trips from Moon-related organizations seems to be that if someone else is willing to foot the bill, why not pony up and grab the benefit?