The Unification Church has asked followers around the world to pray and fast for its 92-year-old founder, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, suffering from pneumonia and unconscious in a Seoul, South Korea, hospital's intensive-care unit.
Moon is a self-proclaimed messiah who said that he was 15 when Jesus Christ personally called on him to complete Jesus' unfinished work.
Centered in South Korea and Japan, the church Moon founded in 1954 was thought to have as many as 30,000 followers in the United States at one time. It claims millions of members worldwide, but defectors and critics say the figure is no more than 100,000. They contend the Unification Church is a cult interested only in recruiting members to run Moon's many businesses.
Probably best known for its mass weddings, the church also runs a multibillion-dollar religious and business empire that includes the Washington Times newspaper, the New Yorker Hotel in midtown Manhattan and Kahr Arms, a small arms manufacturing firm in New York.
The church leader spent 13 months in U.S. prison after being convicted of tax evasion in 1982.
The Rev. Joshua Cotter, vice president of the Unification Church USA, said Moon entered the hospital Monday and was in critical condition. Chances of his survival are "50-50," the church said on its website, citing an unnamed doctor. Moon suffered complications that arose from an "untimely" cold and pneumonia, Moon's youngest son, Hyung Jin Moon, wrote in a separate message, adding that the family is by his bedside.
On Thursday, the church called for 40 days of prayer and a three-day fast aimed at inspiring Moon's recovery.
Moon's last major public appearance was last month, when he took part in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Peace Cup soccer tournament sponsored by his church in South Korea.
Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han, are known among his followers as the "true parents of all humankind." According to the church's "Divine Principle," Jesus failed to restore human beings to their position as God's "perfect children" because he was crucified before he could marry. Moon teaches that his mission is to finish the work of Jesus by linking married couples and their families to God through him.
For his flock, the mass weddings symbolize his teachings of "trans-religion, transnational and trans-racial" love. Critics allege Moon brainwashes his followers into donating their life savings to his church and marrying partners selected by him. Many couples met their spouses for the first time at their weddings, but the church is said to have modified the practice, letting couples now meet and date first.
Moon began the group weddings in the 1960s, marrying a few dozen couples at a time. But they grabbed world attention when they grew in size. Some 2,500 church couples exchanged or affirmed their vows in November 1997 in a ceremony at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington. A crowd of almost 40,000 turned out for that event. In 1999, 21,000 couples filled Seoul's Olympic Stadium to wed.
Couples from more than 100 countries gathered in the Olympic Stadium to tie the knot or renew vows on Oct. 14, 2009, in what was seen as the last mass wedding that Moon would officiate. The confetti-filled 90-minute spectacle, timed to celebrate Moon's 90th birthday, was broadcast live on the Internet in three languages.
At the church's Sun Moon University south of Seoul, thousands of couples bowed to the elderly couple, who were seated at an altar festooned with flowers and shaped like an ancient Korean royal throne. Row after row of brides in white gowns or traditional wedding costumes of their countries stood holding hands with grooms mostly clad in black suits.
Similar mass weddings, smaller but hooked up to the South Korean event via Web links, took place around the world, in Norway, Sweden, Japan, Venezuela, Honduras and the United States.
The church, officially named the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, will be led by Moon's youngest son, Hyung Jin Moon. He studied theology at Harvard University, where he went about campus with a shaved head and in a robe in what some said was a flirtation with Buddhism.
More recently, now with slicked-back hair, he leads a congregation in Seoul, where he has played rocklike gospel music and vowed to undertake reforms such as increasing transparency in fundraising.
Another son, Kook Jin Moon, who has taken the first name Justin, is in charge of the church's business ventures in South Korea, which include construction, newspapers, hospitals, schools, tourism, ski resorts, beverages and a professional soccer team. He also owns the New York gun manufacturer.
Amid alleged family strife, the eldest son, Hyun Jin or Preston Moon, gave up control of the Washington Times, the conservative newspaper the church founded in 1982 in the U.S. capital, back to his father after firing much of its management in 2009. The elder Moon at one point was critical of the way his son was running the paper, allegedly saying: "The Washington Times has to take responsibility for people going to hell in America," referring to, among other sins, "homosexuality and lesbianism."
Most of Moon's eight children live in the United States, where some were born.
The church founder was born in what is now North Korea. According to his official biography, he was persecuted by the Communists and fled to South Korea during the Korean War. In 1991, he returned to North Korea to meet Kim Il-sung, the North Korean founder and president. The church later began running an auto company and a hotel in Pyongyang.
His church was never recognized by orthodox Christian churches in South Korea, which dominate religious life there, along with Buddhist sects.