'Messiah' Moon leaves a vast business - and a tainted image

Irish Times/September 4, 2012

To its critics the Unification Church is a dangerous cult

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial founder of the Unification Church who died yesterday aged 92, leaves behind a vast business empire and a reputation tainted by accusations of brainwashing.

The self-proclaimed messiah who claimed to have met Jesus three times, and whose mass weddings involved thousands of couples, died at a hospital owned by the church in Gapyeong County, northeast of Seoul, two weeks after being hospitalised with pneumonia. His 10 surviving sons and daughters were by his bedside.

To its critics, the church is a dangerous cult and its followers are lampooned as "Moonies", but it is nevertheless staunchly worshipped by its many adherents. The church says there are three million of them, but ex-members say there are only tens of thousands left.

The wedding ceremonies, which Moon began in the early 1960s, paired up strangers from different parts of the world. One of the most well-known ceremonies was in Madison Square Garden in New York - the first held outside Korea.

"International and intercultural marriages are the quickest way to bring about an ideal world of peace," he wrote in a 2009 autobiography.

Despite his pronouncements on world peace, much of his life was characterised by antagonism, and critics say the organisation too readily emptied the pockets of its members.

The Unification Church certainly amassed quite a haul of business ventures over the years. In South Korea, the church owned a ski resort, a fistful of football teams, various schools and hospitals and other businesses. It is run like the chaebol conglomerates that dominate other areas of life in Korea, such as Samsung and Hyundai.

Much of Moon's career became wrapped up in the murky relationship between North and South Korea, which have been bitter enemies since the Korean War ended with no truce in 1953. Intelligence gathering on both sides has been intense in the intervening six decades.

Moon spent time in prison in North Korea, and was an avowed anti-communist, but he later repaired his links with the Kim dynasty in the North and the Unification Church became a player in North-South links, setting up a "peace" institute and operating one of the few big hotels in the North, the Potonggang, in the capital, Pyongyang.

The Unification Church owned the Washington Times newspaper, the swish New Yorker Hotel in midtown Manhattan, and a vast seafood distribution firm.

Probably the sharpest criticism was retained for the Unification Church's recruitment methods, which many former members said were akin to brainwashing. Ex-devotees claimed they were lied to - the practice was known by members as "heavenly deception" - as well as tortured and beaten.

Moon labelled homosexuals "dirty, dung-eating dogs" and blamed Jews for the Holocaust, saying they had handed Jesus Christ over to the Romans and earned their fate.

He was a vocal backer of disgraced US president Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal, and he cultivated links with conservative US leaders such as former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush snr.

In one bizarre episode, he pronounced himself as humanity's saviour and said he had "saved" the spirits of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, helping them to become "reborn as new persons". He announced this at a "coronation ceremony" attended by US politicians who subsequently had to distance themselves from the event.

The Unification Church came to Ireland in the 1970s, and was successful in recruiting during that decade. However, it waned as a force when a number of adherents were "deprogrammed" and then exposed abuses within the organisation.

In 1978, a US congressional committee found evidence of Rev Moon's ties to Korean intelligence agencies and concluded that the Unification Church "systematically violated US tax, immigration, banking, currency and Foreign Agents Registration Act laws".

In May 1982 Moon was convicted of failing to report nearly €130,000 in income on his tax returns and served 13 months in federal prison in the US.

This was a far cry from his early days in North Korea, where he was born, in 1920. He started the Unification Church in 1954. The organisation is based on the Bible, but incorporates a melange of other doctrines such as Buddhism and Confucianism, together with traditional Korean elements.

Moon's parents were Presbyterians, and he claimed he had met Jesus on the farm when aged 16. Jesus, he claimed, asked him to take on the work of building God's kingdom on Earth - a job he accepted after being asked twice.

After having been accused of spying, he served time in prison in North Korea in the 1940s under the communist government. He left his North Korean wife and married Hak Ja Han Moon in 1960.

His conservative organisation with its focus on family values proved popular in South Korea, which was seeking moral guidance in the chaos after the end of the Korean War.

The scale of the Unification Church's financial interests has caused rifts within his own family. One of Moon's sons reportedly sued his mother in 2011 for €17.5 million over money sent to her missionary group.

Another son died by suicide in 1999. Two other sons reportedly also died early - one in a train crash and another in a traffic incident.

Moon was vigorous to the last. Despite being involved in a helicopter crash near Seoul in 2008, he recovered to preside over a ceremony for 45,000 people marrying for the first time or renewing their vows.

The mass weddings look set to prove the enduring image of his organisation.

Unification Church the Irish connection

THE UNIFICATION Church founded by the Rev Sun Myung Moon enjoyed some years of growth in Ireland in the 1970s but now has no more than "about 40-50 members" here, said campaign group Dialogue Ireland.

Mike Garde, director of the group which monitors the activities of religious cults, has been a long- time critic of the "Moonies".

A major turning point for the church in Ireland, he says, was in 1981 when Donegal schoolteacher Mary Canning testified about the organisation's questionable recruitment practices.

She was "rescued" and "deprogrammed" after spending two months in the church in San Francisco. Publicity about the case caused then government minister Paddy Harte to describe the organisation as "sinister" and "evil".

Moon occasionally monitored Irish affairs and in 1997 invited former taoiseach Albert Reynolds to be keynote speaker at a "peace" conference organised by the church in Washington. Reynolds, who stressed he was not endorsing the church by attending, spoke about his role in the Northern Ireland peace process and told his audience "a happy family makes a happy nation".

In 2005, Moon visited Dublin for an event dubbed as a regional summit for the church, drawing a large number of members from Britain.

The Unification Church maintains an office at 19 North Great George's Street. Italian native Bruno Miresse is national director of the church in Ireland.

"There are around 50 members in Ireland but it is hard to put a definite number as many of them travel around the world to do work for the church," he says. The Unification Church in Ireland will hold a service of some kind to mark the passing of Sun Myung Moon.

Mr Miresse adds that the term "Moonie" is a derogatory term used to describe members of the church. "It was a term coined 20 years ago in the US to hint that we are strange or some kind of sect or movement. We would prefer if people did not use the word to describe us. We have respect for other religions and beliefs of other people so we expect the same from others."

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