The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, now approaching 90 and still one of the world’s most controversial religious figures, is handing over day-to-day control of his Unification Church to three U.S.-educated sons.
There are some changes afoot in fundraising and boosting membership, the sons say. But Moon — who will preside over another series of his trademark mass weddings on Wednesday — remains in charge as the church’s self-proclaimed “Messiah.”
Still, the sons are quietly assuming more responsibility in managing a church that has steadily expanded its business and charitable activities while trying to avoid the criticism that dogged it during the 1970s and 80s.
The youngest, 30-year-old Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, was tapped last year to take over as the church’s religious leader. Moon Kook-jin, 39, is in charge of business ventures in South Korea, while 40-year-old Moon Hyun-jin oversees international operations. The church said all the brothers have Harvard degrees.
Since founding the church in Seoul in 1954, the elder Moon has built a business empire with hundreds of ventures in more than a half-dozen countries, from hospitals and universities to newspapers and even a professional soccer team and ballet troupe.
These include the Washington Times newspaper and the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, as well as an ad agency and ski resort in South Korea, and a seafood distribution firm that supplies sushi to Japanese restaurants across the U.S.
There are also ventures in North Korea, where Moon’s ties are strong enough that for his last birthday, the communist country’s leader Kim Jong Il sent roses, lilies and prized wild ginseng. The church’s interests include fledgling automaker Pyeonghwa Motors and the only foreign-owned luxury hotel in Pyongyang.
Among the most controversial of Moon’s legacies are the mass weddings he calls “blessing ceremonies” — arranged marriages often pairing followers from different countries that he says are aimed at building a multicultural religious world.
Critics maintain the weddings, involving people who usually don’t meet until shortly before the ceremony, are evidence the Unification Church brainwashes its followers.
Since the first weddings took place in Seoul in 1960 and 1961, mass weddings have been held at New York’s Madison Square Garden and at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium, where 42,000 people were married in 1999.
On Wednesday, Moon will wed or reaffirm the marriages of more than 40,000 people: 20,000 in South Korea and the rest in countries around the world, including the U.S., where church officials say ceremonies are planned in nearly every state, including at the church-owned New Yorker Hotel.
Moon Hyung-jin, the Rev. Moon’s hand-picked successor as religious director, was just 17 when he took a bride chosen by his father; the couple now have five children. In addition, three of the Rev. Moon’s grandchildren were set up with followers from Japan, the colonial ruler of Korea.
The younger Moon says he sees the unions as an opportunity for diplomacy.
“If people from Korea and Japan marry with this broad mindset, their children won’t see their parents’ countries as enemies and instead will come to love both countries,” he told The Associated Press in an interview at his Seoul office.
Baby-faced and soft-spoken, Moon Hyung-jin was born and raised in New York, where he was known as Sean. He admits he’s still growing into his new job.
“When my father asked me to take on this role, I told him this responsibility was a bit much for me,” he said. “He told me not to worry, that many people would help me.”
Since then, the younger Moon says he has carved out some areas of change, including making the church’s fundraising activities more transparent. The church has been accused of duping followers into handing over their life savings.
Membership is also a key concern. Though the church claims millions of members worldwide, experts say the figure is far lower — no more than 100,000. In South Korea, Unification Church members are far outnumbered by Catholics, Presbyterians and Buddhists.
“We’ve been weak on membership and on figuring out the church’s direction. We’ve been trying to resolve those issues,” Moon Hyung-jin said. “But the church is getting stronger, and church members are happier.”
Asked if his membership drive would include any 120-city world tours like the one his father undertook at age 85, Moon laughed and said he shouldn’t be seen as a successor to his father. “I can’t be compared to my father,” he said. “If people put so much importance in their titles, they become arrogant.”
The younger Moon’s anointment came despite a lapse of faith during his Harvard years, when he said he turned to Buddhism after a brother, Young-jin, died in Reno, Nevada, in 1999, in what authorities called a suicide.
He said his father ordered church members not to criticize him for donning Buddhist robes and shaving his head on campus. “I was hugely moved,” he said. “I had thought my father would kick me out of the church, but he protected me.”
While Moon Hyung-jin preaches in both Korean and fluent English, his style is distinctly American. At a service last month in Seoul broadcast on his Web site, there was more rock than gospel.
“Give it up! Let’s give it up for True Parents!” he proclaimed, using the church terms for the elder Rev. Moon and his wife.
Moon Kook-jin, who has headed the church’s South Korean business operations since 2005, praised his youngest brother. “I think he’s doing a good job,” he told the AP.
A Seoul businessman and owner of the New York-based gun manufacturer Kahr Arms, Moon Kook-jin says he sees no contradiction in owning a weapons factory. “To build a peaceful country, we need the police and an army,” he said, a black Kahr Arms baseball cap perched on his head.
Critics maintain the Rev. Moon is little more than a charismatic cult leader who brainwashes followers.
“What Rev. Moon says is the law,” said Lee Young-sun, a follower who left the church in 2001 after 31 years. Her family so revered Moon, she said, they hung his portrait on the wall and thanked him in their mealtime prayers. “The church’s brainwashing is exactly what North Korea does,” she said.
Still, some analysts say that by anointing a new generation, Moon may ensure the church endures after his death
“Some people say the Unification Church may perish after Moon’s death but I don’t think so,” said Tark Ji-il, a religion professor at Busan Presbyterian University. “It’s more accurate to view them now as a corporate organization uniting people with similar religious beliefs.”