First such event organised by Unification Church near Seoul since death of founder Reverend Sun Myung Moon last year

Aljazeera/February 17, 2013

South Korea’s Unification Church has held a mass wedding, with 3,500 couples from 70 countries tying the knot.

The ceremony on Sunday was the first since the death of its leader and founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

About 20,000 church officials and followers gathered at Cheongshim Peace Centre in Gapyeong, south of Seoul, and 7,000 of them exchanged wedding rings.

The organiser said the event was to promote world peace and break down barriers between races.

According to the church, about a thousand new couples tied the knot, while more than 8,500 couples from all over the world participated via a live-streamed broadcast.

The Unification Church claims millions of members worldwide.

Moon, its founder, died of complications from pneumonia last year, aged 92.

His widow, Hak Ja Han, presided over Sunday's ceremony, sprinkling holy water over the couples and delivering a congratulatory message.

The couples from South Korea and abroad hugged each other after exchanging wedding rings.

The church has been derided for its mass weddings because thousands of couples were matched with future spouses whom some of them had just met before the ceremony, and in many cases, did not speak the same language.

The Unification Church considers the Korean peninsula a sacred place.

Its website said Jesus Christ appeared to founder and overall leader as he was praying in the Korea 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 US 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.

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