SUN MYUNG MOON, the self-styled messiah from South Korea who founded the controversial Unification Church and a business empire with interests spanning cars to sushi, died yesterday at the age of 92.
Moon, who was hospitalised with complications from pneumonia more than two weeks ago, died shortly before 5pm GMT on Sunday at a hospital in the church’s headquarters in Gapyeong, east of Seoul.
Revered by his followers but denounced by critics as a cult-building charlatan, Moon was a deeply divisive figure whose shadowy business and financial dealings saw him jailed in the United States.
Moon’s close aide Bo Hi Pak told reporters in Gapyeong:
He was our father and God’s messiah. His body was custom-made by God so we believed he would live until 100. Now with him gone to heaven, all of us are tremendously saddened. We are in the deepest sorrow.
Moon had been on life support since Friday after suffering multiple organ failure.
A church statement said Moon’s body would “lie in state” for 13 days prior to his funeral on September 15, but a spokesman later said it had not been decided whether public viewing would be allowed.
Born to a farming family in 1920 in what is now North Korea, Moon said he was inspired by a vision of Jesus at age 15.
Rejected by Korean Protestant churches, he founded the Unification Church in 1954 – a year after the Korean War – and built it into a global religious movement that claims three million members worldwide.
Pilloried by detractors as a cult that brainwashed its followers, known mockingly as “Moonies,” the church was famed for its mass weddings that married thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of followers in sports stadium ceremonies led by Moon.
The couples were largely unknown to each other having been personally paired up by Moon — often from different nationalities with no common language.
KEN CEDENO/AP/Press Association Images
As the church rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s, it spawned a multi-billion dollar business empire encompassing construction, heavy machinery, food, education, the media and even a professional football club.
Its media holdings include the Washington Times newspaper and the United Press International news agency, and it also dominates the fishing and distribution industry, supplying sushi outlets in the United States.
A church-affiliated firm, Pyeonghwa (Peace) Motors, established a joint carmaking business in North Korea in 1999.
Throughout his life, Moon assiduously courted political leaders in what his critics said was a strategy to procure influence and legitimacy for his church which has been condemned as heretical by some Christian organisations.
In 1974 he met President Richard Nixon at the White House and urged Americans to forgive their leader for the Watergate scandal.
In 1991, he traveled to North Korea to meet then leader Kim Il-Sung for talks on inter-Korean economic cooperation projects and the reunion of separated families from the North and South.
The teachings of the Unification Church are based on the Bible but with new interpretations. Moon saw his role as completing the unfulfilled mission of Jesus to restore humanity to a state of “sinless” purity.
In official church literature, he is referred to as the “True Father” and the “one and only messiah in human history”. Moon’s emergence as a significant religious leader was tainted by legal problems.
Having moved to the United States in 1972, he was indicted on tax evasion charges in 1981, in what his followers insisted was a conspiracy to force him out of the country. He was convicted and served 11 months in prison.
Moon, who returned to live in South Korea in 2006, was admitted to the intensive care of a Seoul hospital in mid-August and then shifted to the Gapyeong estate after doctors said his kidneys had ceased to function.
Followers left numerous grief-stricken messages of loss on the church’s official website:
I feel like the sky is falling and the whole world has collapsed.
You are the eternal king of kings, the messiah of mankind. You will always live in my heart.
From Thursday, mourners will be allowed to offer prayers at an altar bearing Moon’s image in Gapyeong, and Pak said 30,000 followers had been invited from Japan.
Moon had 14 children with his second wife, Hak Ja Han. Hyung Jin Moon, the youngest of his seven sons, succeeded his father as the church’s most senior leader in 2008 at the age of 28.
Moon’s funeral will be held on September 15.