'I married a stranger at a mass wedding': Life inside the Unification Church

The Unification Church, a powerful religious group commonly derided as 'The Moonies', is under investigation for its role in Japanese politics following the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Some call it a cult, while others say the church's aim is world peace.

SBS Dateline, Australia/March 5, 2023

By Agnes Teek and Jennifer Scherer

When Jinae first met her husband, she could hardly communicate with him. He was from Japan and she was brought up in the US, but according to Jinae this "was kind of normal in the church".

She was born into a religious movement called The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, more commonly known as the Unification Church.

Founded in Seoul, South Korea in 1954, those who are faithful to the Unification Church are often nicknamed 'Moonies', after their leader Sun Myung Moon. Jinae says she was taught to believe that Reverend Moon was the "Messiah" and the "True Father".

Moon was staunchly anti-communist and his church spread internationally during the cold war. Today, the church operates in 120 countries and has around 600,000 members. It gained notoriety for its so-called "mass weddings", blessing ceremonies of thousands of couples, often held in indoor arenas or outdoor sports stadiums.

A man and a woman.

Jinae's parents matched her with her future husband, and they were married in a mass wedding ceremony in Korea. Jinae says this ceremony signifies the change of blood lineage from Satan's lineage to God's lineage.

As a "Blessed Child", second-generation member of the Church, she had known her whole life this was her fate. On her wedding day she says she was miserable.

"I couldn't disappoint my parents and I couldn't lose my community.

"This was my whole life."

'I would call it a cult'

According to Jinae, shortly after she was born, Reverend Moon decreed all member's children should be raised in Church nurseries or by their grandparents. She says this enabled her parents to dedicate more of their life to the Church’s mission.

"So much of my life was decided before I was even old enough to have a say in anything," she told SBS Dateline.

Her parents told her that when she was three months old, she was dropped off at a nursery in Colorado in the United States. Jinae remembers, three years later, "when they came to pick me up from the nursery, I didn't really know they were my parents". However her parents have subsequently told her they did visit her in the nursery.

Her parents told her she failed to thrive as a baby and as a toddler the nursery staff thought she was mute until they heard her singing church songs to her brother.

Jinae says, "I think that really speaks to this sense of not really feeling attached to anyone or feeling secure enough to even voice myself".

The Unification Church was propelled into the headlines last year after the assassination of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

According to a police statement, alleged shooter Tetsuya Yamagami claimed his mother had been bankrupted by the church in Japan. He reportedly told investigators that he believed Mr Abe had links to the church.

This has led to an ongoing investigation into the donation practices of the Unification Church in Japan.

Jinae and her husband spent time in the church in Japan. She says, "I think especially in Japan, I saw so much exploitation and heard all these horrendous stories and I can't support something that harms people in that kind of way". According to Jinae, her husband witnessed a church leader, "yelling at members and telling them they weren’t donating enough".

A spokesperson for the church in Japan told Dateline that in 2009, several companies run by church followers were found guilty of conducting Spiritual Sales — in breach of Japan's Specific Commercial Transactions Act. In response, the church says it’s changed the way it solicits donations and that Abe’s murder has triggered even further reform.

In 1984 Reverend Moon was jailed in the US for tax evasion. He served 13 months of an 18 month sentence.

According to the Financial Times, the church has a number of business interests, including the Washington Times, an extensive real estate portfolio, the New Yorker hotel and seafood wholesaler True World Foods.

In January, Japanese newspaper The Mainichi Shimbun said an affiliate of the church had acquired land to fulfil Reverend Moon’s 1981 reported vision of linking Japan and Korea via an undersea tunnel.

Jinae is no longer a member of the Unification Church. She says she feels like she left in stages but says, "the hardest thing was being able to talk to my parents about it".

She says, "I think it's a high-control religious group... I would call it a cult. There is a lot of groupthink and there isn't a whole lot of personal agency outside the very prescribed, you know, path or choices that you're given".

The Australian branch of the church

John Adamedes is the President of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in Australia. He says the church has a presence in every state across Australia and has a couple hundred 'core' members, mostly situated in Sydney and Melbourne.

In a rare interview, he told SBS Dateline calling members of the church 'Moonies' is a "derogatory term".

"It's just lack of understanding, ignorance," Adamedes said.

"I'm Greek. I was born in Sydney and my parents were refugees during the Second World War.

"I'm the fourth of five and grew up in a very White Australia policy … Greeks and Italians weren't favoured … [and] it hurt me deeply hearing the word 'wog'.

"I know what it's like to be in a minority and to be picked on, it's all because of ignorance."

Adamedes joined the Unification Church in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1980.

"I trusted Father Moon as being someone that you know, has a deep relationship with God and represents God," he said.

He says the core ideals of the church are "living for the sake of others, and we are God's family".

As part of this mission work, Adamedes spent four years in the Solomon Islands.

"I joined and then did many, many different jobs and missions — and always witnessing, fundraising," he said.

"We need funds to do projects, [and] the projects are always to do with peace and unity and family, and witnessing is to teach people about this understanding of the truth that God is a real reality."

When questioned about allegations of financial abuse through the church's fundraising practices, John says "they're making it sound like it's a con".

"But it's not, [the] person is generous, they want to do good. And you're doing it for pure motive."

'The aim is world peace'

In 1982, aged 24, he was matched by Reverend Moon and married in a mass wedding to his Japanese wife, Shizuyo.

"I was in [a mass wedding] with 6,000 couples, but we've had ones with 300,000 couples," Adamedes said.

"[The aim is] world peace through international marriages.

"There's no better way than to fix the problem then to have warring nations come together like Korea and Japan … we've got thousands of Korean-Japanese couples, the kids grow up, both cultures are their culture."

A man and woman getting married.

Now aged 66, Adamedes says he has helped match other couples within the church.

"One of the core values you could say of the Unification Church is that we believe that we are in the process of creating one family under God."

In response to the Unification Church being called a cult, Adamedes says, "it's very sad".

"I mean, cult, new religion, it's a fine line," he said.

"And what's a cult anyway? I mean, it's just another derogatory term. It's just a put down.

"I believe it's a new religion. It's a bona fide religion."

In regard to the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe, Adamedes believes the church is being used as a scapegoat.

"It doesn't look like there was one shooter. They're saying there's more than one shooter," he said.

"There's so many questions. And that's all been sidelined, because the media is saying, ah, that's nothing. It's the Unification Church.

"But we're saying that's not true. The Communist Party has always been out to destroy the Unification Church."

Jinae's life after the church

Jinae is still married to her husband and says she is now building a life that she wants, not what is expected of her. She says, "it took a lot of mourning, going to therapy and kind of building my own sense of self".

"I was taught only to trust Church members and everyone outside has fallen and is part of Satan's lineage.

"It's very freeing not to believe that anymore.

"I've met such amazing, wonderful people now who don't have those beliefs, didn't get mass married and blessed and they are perfectly wonderful human beings."

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