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Rev. Moon performs worldwide mass wedding

In a ceremony streamed over the Web, Unification Church officials say 40,000 people recited vows around the world as the controversial minister stood before an estimated 7,500 couples in South Korea.

October 15, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — The legions of followers stood in rapt attention Wednesday -- men in black tuxedos and red ties, women in white lace and veils -- for the largest mass wedding in a decade performed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the powerful and sometimes controversial Unification Church.

In all, church officials say, about 40,000 men and women either took their vows or renewed them in a global mega-ceremony that seemed equal parts lavish spectacle, religious ritual and, for many skeptics, just plain kitsch.

An estimated 7,500 couples stood before Moon at an outdoor square at Sun Moon University, the school the 89-year-old religious leader founded in Asan, near Seoul. Tens of thousands of couples gathered elsewhere to take their vows -- from Sweden to Brazil to the United States -- via proceedings in South Korea that were seen worldwide on the church's www.unification.org.

The event was designed to commemorate both the upcoming 90th birthday and 50th wedding anniversary of the dynamic spiritual leader, who officials say is now poised to hand over the leadership of his religious empire to three of his 10 children.

Moon performed in Korean what the church called the "10.14 True Parents Cosmic Blessing Ceremony."

Walking onstage with his wife to the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel's "Messiah," the somber Moon sprinkled ceremonial water on his followers. After the celebrants exchanged rings, Moon led them in a series of cheers as confetti filled the air.

Wednesday's event came nearly 50 years after Moon arranged the marriages of 24 couples in his first mass wedding here. Since then, he has weathered numerous sex scandals as his Unification Church has been criticized as a cult that brainwashes followers, who are often referred to as "Moonies."

Tark Ji-il, a religion professor at Busan Presbyterian University in South Korea, said that Moon, who has been accused of being unethical, has ritualized weddings for his followers.

Experts say there is practicality to Moon's mass marriages.

"While Moon is alive, people want their marriages to be administered by him. If he didn't do it this way, he'd spend his entire life officiating weddings," said Michael Breen, a Korea-based author who is writing a biography of Moon.

The Unification Church prizes marriage as the highest sacrament, Breen said.

"The church believes that a wholesome society starts with wholesome families, which start with strong marriages. So what these people are engaging in is, for them, the most meaningful thing they'll do in their Moonie lives."

Moon's church has been criticized for arranging many of the marriages of its followers.

"If you come from a culture where arranged marriages are practiced, then this seems OK," Breen said. "But if you're from Western culture, getting introduced to a complete stranger and marrying them the next day is an extraordinary thing to do."

Unification Church officials say that Moon once handpicked each couple, most of whom had never met. Nowadays, they say, there are programs to help the would-be couples get to know each other before the mass ceremonies.

One Westerner recalled taking part in a 1982 Unification Church wedding in New York.

"Walking down 8th Avenue to Madison Square Garden with all of our gear on, you realized you were participating in something society saw as downright strange," said the Seoul resident, who asked that his name not be used because he's no longer involved with the church.

"The thrilling moment for me was the matching a year before, not the blessing," he said, adding that his marriage lasted 17 years. "You got a sense this was done with a lot of thought and consideration. . . . You trusted him."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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