Seoul - The new international president of the Unification Church, a Harvard-trained theologian and son of founder Sun Myung Moon, wants to reach out to other religions and would prefer mass weddings of hundreds, not thousands of couples.
Hyung Jin Moon, 29, who in April became international president of a church that has a global following but also a sullied image, grew up in New York, once wore the robes of a Buddhist monk, studied at a Jesuit college and likes American football.
"I love the other world religions. That is what I have focused on in my studies," Moon said in a recent interview.
Moon said he wanted to take the church, officially called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, beyond its Protestant, evangelical base, increase democratic elections for leaders and strengthen its presence in South Korea.
The Unification Church considers the Korean peninsula sacred.
Its Web site ( http://www.unification.org/index.html) said Jesus Christ appeared to founder and overall leader Sun Myung Moon as he was praying in the Korean mountains and asked him "to complete the task of establishing God's kingdom on Earth".
The founder has been a lightning rod for controversy and was once jailed in the United States for tax evasion. He also declared in 1992 that he and his wife were messiahs.
Critics have for years vilified the organisation as a heretical, weird and dangerous cult while questioning its murky finances and how it indoctrinates followers. They describe followers of the group as "Moonies", a term seen as derogatory.
The son, Moon, said: "I have studied major world religions and what I have noticed is that in the age of the founder, the founder is always, somehow, not accepted into the mainstream of religiosity. I believe that pattern also exists in the development of Unificationism."
No Succession Plan
The founder, called Father Moon by his son, is 88 and has not outlined a succession plan. He has placed his children in positions of power in the church, such as overseeing its business and charitable interests as well as its U.S. branch.
Hyung Jin Moon has helped modernise the church by working to add meditation to ceremonies as well as gospel music. The church does not reveal its membership numbers, but some estimate its following at 5 to 7 million people worldwide.
The church has been derided for its mass weddings of several years ago when thousands of couples were matched with future spouses they sometimes had just met, and in several cases, did not speak the same language.
"The marriage ceremonies continue to be an important part of the tradition, but not at that scale," Moon said, adding wedding blessings were now typically given out at ceremonies with 100 or 200 couples who have met before.
Moon said the church does not give its wedding blessing to same sex couples.
"The Unification tradition is a little more conservative on that issue. We have a whole group of younger leadership and we don't want to exclude anybody from our tradition. There are things that have to be worked out and discussed."
The church has been a staunch supporter of conservative Republicans in the United States, but Moon is thrilled about the election of Democrat Barack Obama.
"I am very proud as an American to have a black president. I was born and raised in America. I am a part of a minority. To see a minority representative being the president of the United States of America is extremely inspiring. It's just miraculous."