Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Founder of Unification Church, Dies at 92

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Courtesy of The New York Times

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean evangelist, businessman and self-proclaimed messiah who built a religious movement notable for its mass weddings, fresh-faced proselytizers and links to vast commercial interests, died on Monday in Gapyeong, South Korea. He was 92.

His death was announced on his church’s Web site, which said he had been battling complications from pneumonia, including kidney failure.

Mr. Moon courted world leaders, financed newspapers and founded numerous innocuously named civic organizations. To his critics, he pursued those activities mainly to lend legitimacy to his movement, known as the Unification Church, although his methods were sometimes questionable. In 2004, for example, he had himself crowned “humanity’s savior” in front of astonished members of Congress at a Capitol Hill luncheon.

Mr. Moon was a leading figure in what Eileen V. Barker, a professor emeritus of sociology at the London School of Economics, called “the great wave of new religious movements and alternative religiosity in the 1960s and 1970s in the West,” a time when the Hare Krishna and Transcendental Meditation movements were also gathering force.

Mr. Moon, said Professor Barker, an expert on new religious movements, was “very important in those days — as far as the general culture was concerned — in the fear of cults and sects.”

Building a business empire in South Korea and Japan, Mr. Moon used his commercial interests to support nonprofit ventures, then kept control of them by placing key insiders within their hierarchies. He avidly backed right-wing causes, turning The Washington Times into a respected newspaper in conservative circles.

An ardent anti-Communist who had been imprisoned by the Communist authorities in northern Korea in the 1940s, he saw the United States as the world’s salvation. But in the late 1990s, after financial losses, defections and stagnant growth in the church’s membership, he turned on America, branding it a repository of immorality — “Satan’s harvest” — and repositioned his movement as a crusade for moral values.

As Mr. Moon approached 90, not long after he survived a helicopter crash in 2008, three of his sons and a daughter began assuming more responsibility for running the church and his holdings.

In its early years in the United States, the Unification Church was widely viewed as little more than a cult, one whose polite, well-scrubbed members, known derisively as Moonies, sold flowers and trinkets on street corners and married in mass weddings. In one of the last such events, in 2009, 10,000 couples exchanged or renewed vows before Mr. Moon at Sun Moon University near Seoul.

A Focus on Marriage

Such weddings were the activity most associated with Mr. Moon in the United States. They were in keeping with a central tenet of his theology, a mix of Eastern philosophy, biblical teachings and what he called God’s revelations to him.

In the church’s view, Jesus had failed in his mission to purify mankind because he was crucified before being able to marry and have children. Mr. Moon saw himself as completing the unfulfilled task of Jesus: to restore humankind to a state of perfection by producing sinless children, and by blessing couples who would produce them.

Marriage was a key part of achieving salvation, and for a couple the marriage was as much a commitment to the church as it was to each other.

In a ceremony involving 2,075 couples at Madison Square Garden in 1982, for example, the men wore identical blue suits and the women lace and satin gowns. Mr. Moon was said to have made the matches, based on questionnaires, photographs and the recommendations of church officials.

Often the couples had met only weeks earlier or could speak to each other only through an interpreter. Many had to remain separated for several years, doing church work, before they were allowed to consummate the unions.

Mr. Moon struggled against bad publicity. He was sent to prison on tax evasion charges and accused of influence-buying and of maintaining ties to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. He denied both allegations. In the late 1970s he was caught up in a Congressional investigation into attempts by South Korea to influence American policy. There were battles with local officials over zoning for church buildings and tax-exempt status.

As his church grew more prominent in the 1970s and ’80s, it became embroiled in lawsuits over soliciting funds, acquiring property and recruiting followers. Defectors wrote damaging books. From 1973 to 1986 at least 400 of the church’s flock were abducted by their family members to undergo “deprogramming,” according to an estimate by David G. Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on Mr. Moon. The church denied that it had brainwashed its followers, saying members joined and stayed of their own free will.

Mr. Moon said he was the victim of religious oppression and ethnic bias because of his Korean heritage. Established churches were angered, he said, because they felt threatened by his movement.

“I don’t blame those people who call us heretics,” he was quoted as saying in “Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church” (1977), a sympathetic account by Frederick Sontag. “We are indeed heretics in their eyes because the concept of our way of life is revolutionary: We are going to liberate God.”

Prominent people were paid to appear at Moon-linked conferences. The first President George Bush did so after he left office. Others, like former President Gerald R. Ford, Bill Cosby, Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Jack Kemp, attended banquets and gatherings, sometimes saying later that they had not known of a connection between Mr. Moon and the organizations that invited them.

Personal setbacks marked Mr. Moon’s later years. In 1984, a son, Heung Jin, died at 17 from injuries sustained in a car crash. Another son, Young Jin Moon, who was 21, committed suicide in 1999 by jumping from a 17th-story balcony at Harrah’s hotel in Reno, Nev. In 1995 Nansook Hong, the wife of his eldest son, Hyo Jin Moon, who at one time was Mr. Moon’s heir apparent, broke from the family and wrote a book characterizing her husband as a womanizing cocaine user who watched pornographic movies and beat her, once when she was seven months pregnant.

Ms. Hong portrayed the entire Moon family as dysfunctional, spoiled and divided by intrigue and hypocrisy. (She also wrote that the church believed that the spirit of Heung Jin had returned for a time in the body of a Zimbabwean man who traveled the world and, with Mr. Moon’s sanction, beat straying church members.)

From early on Mr. Moon was revered by his followers as the messiah, and in 1992 he conferred that title on himself. He also declared that he and his second wife, Hak Ja Han, were the “true parents of all humanity.”

Mr. Moon founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954 and began organizing it on a large scale in the United States in the early 1970s. It eventually claimed up to three million members worldwide, but historians of religion dispute that number, estimating a membership of 50,000 at the church’s height in the late 1970s, with only a few thousand in the United States. Membership has been difficult to evaluate more recently; church officials give different estimates and often define membership differently, according to an individual’s level of involvement.

Building an Empire

Mr. Moon’s organizations established connections with African-American religious leaders, and he made forays into culture and education, establishing a ballet company in South Korea and financing a ballet school in Washington. In 1992 an organization with ties to Mr. Moon rescued the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, from bankruptcy, pouring in $110 million in subsidies over a decade and taking effective control. Mr. Moon received an honorary degree.

The university’s administration denied that the church had influence, but critics of the arrangement contended that students were being lured into church training with the promise of scholarships, noted that the church had opened a boarding school on campus for members’ children, and said that the church had used the university to import money, in the form of tuition, as well as followers, in the form of the many foreign students who attended.

For a time Mr. Moon lived in an 18-acre compound in Irvington, N.Y., which Ms. Hong described as having a ballroom, two dining rooms (one with a pond and waterfall), a kitchen with six pizza ovens and a bowling alley upstairs. The church owned another estate, Belvedere, in nearby Tarrytown. Farther north along the Hudson River, the church founded the Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown, N.Y. On its Web site, it sometimes is referred to as “U.T.S.: The Interfaith Seminary.” Mr. Moon’s business ventures in South Korea at one time or another included construction, hospitals, schools, ski resorts, newspapers, auto parts, pharmaceuticals, beverages and a professional soccer team. He also had commercial interests in Japan, where right-wing nationalist donors were said to be one source of financing.

In the United States, Mr. Moon had interests in commercial fishing, jewelry, fur products, construction and real estate. He bought many properties in the New York area, including the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown Manhattan and the Manhattan Center nearby.

At one time or another he controlled newspapers including Noticias del Mundo and The New York City Tribune; four publications in South Korea; a newspaper in Japan, The Sekai Nippo; The Middle East Times in Greece; Tiempos del Mundo in Argentina; and Últimas Noticias in Uruguay. In 2000, a church affiliate bought what was left of United Press International.

The extent of his holdings was somewhat of a mystery, but one figure gives a clue: Mr. Moon acknowledged that in the two decades since the founding of The Washington Times in 1982, he pumped in more than $1 billion in subsidies to keep it going.

The church said its various operations earned tens of millions of dollars a year worldwide.

In their book “Cults and New Religions” (2006), Mr. Bromley and Douglas E. Cowan wrote that according to church doctrine, a member “recognizes Moon’s messianic status, agrees to contribute to the payment of personal indemnity for human sinfulness, and looks forward to receiving the marital Blessing and building a restored world of sinless families.”

Self-Proclaimed Messiah

Sun Myung Moon was born on Jan. 6, 1920, in a small rural town in what is now North Korea, according to his official biography. When he was 10, his family joined the Presbyterian Church. When he was a teenager, around Easter 1935, according to Unification Church lore, Jesus appeared to him and anointed him God’s choice to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.

A secular education beckoned, and in 1941 Mr. Moon entered Waseda University in Japan, where he studied electrical engineering. Two years later he returned to Korea and married Sun Kil Choi, who bore him a son. In 1946, leaving them behind, he moved to Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, to found the Kwang-Ya Church, a predecessor of the Unification Church. He was imprisoned by the Communist authorities, and later said that they had tortured him.

He was freed in 1950 — by United Nations forces, his official biography says — and was said to have walked 320 miles to Pusan, on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. There, as the account goes, he built a church with United States Army ration boxes and lived in a mountainside shack.

Despite the centrality of marriage in his developing theology, Mr. Moon divorced Ms. Choi in 1952 (something that was glossed over in the official biography) and the following year moved to Seoul, where he founded the Unification Church in 1954. Within a year, about 30 church centers had sprung up.

Before the decade was out, he published “The Divine Principle,” a dense exposition of his theology that has been revised several times; in her book, Ms. Hong, his daughter-in-law, said it was written by an early disciple based on Mr. Moon’s notes and conversation. He sent his first church emissaries to Japan, the source of early growth, and the United States, and began building his Korean business empire.

Rumors of sexual relations with disciples, which the church denied, dogged the young evangelist, and he fathered a child in 1954. In 1960, Mr. Moon married the 17-year-old Hak Ja Han, who would bear him 13 children and be anointed “true parent.”

He embarked on world tours over the next decade and in 1972 settled in the United States, seeing it as the promised land for church growth. “I came to America primarily to declare the New Age and new truth,” he is quoted as saying in the book “Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church.”

He took an interest in politics, urging that President Richard M. Nixon be forgiven for his role in the Watergate crisis. Church leaders plotted a strategy to defend the president and held rallies in support of Nixon that drew thousands to Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden and the National Mall.

Mr. Moon’s interests expanded into film when a church-linked company backed the 1982 movie “Inchon,” a $42 million Korean War epic notable for bad reviews and the casting of Laurence Olivier as Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

A Litany of Scandals

In the late 1970s, Mr. Moon came under the scrutiny of federal authorities, mainly over allegations that he was involved in efforts by the South Korean government to bribe members of Congress to support President Park Chung-hee. A Congressional subcommittee said there was evidence of ties between Mr. Moon and Korean intelligence, and that the church had raised money and moved it across borders in violation of immigration and local charity laws.

Then, in October 1981, Mr. Moon was named in a 12-count federal indictment. He was accused of failing to report $150,000 in income from 1973 to 1975, a sum consisting of interest from $1.6 million that he had deposited in New York bank accounts in his own name, according to the indictment.

“I would not be standing here today if my skin were white and my religion were Presbyterian,” Mr. Moon said after the charges were announced. “I am here today only because my skin is yellow and my religion is Unification Church.”

He called the case a government conspiracy to force him out of the country.

Mr. Moon was convicted the next year of tax fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was assigned to kitchen duty.

As his church’s fortunes declined in the United States, Mr. Moon revised his pro-American views. In a 1997 speech, he said America had “persecuted” him. He also attacked homosexuals and American women.

Mr. Moon and his church largely dropped from public view in the late ’90s and 2000s, but once in a while they attracted attention. In 2001, a Roman Catholic archbishop from Zambia, Emmanuel Milingo, married a Korean woman in a multiple wedding performed by Mr. Moon. The archbishop then renounced the union.

One of the more bizarre moments in Mr. Moon’s later years came on March 23, 2004, at what was described as a peace awards banquet, held at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington. Members of Congress were among the guests. At one point Representative Danny K. Davis, an Illinois Democrat, wearing white gloves, carried in on a pillow one of two gold crowns that were placed on Mr. Moon and his wife.

Some of the members of Congress said they had no idea that Mr. Moon was to be involved in the banquet, though it was hosted by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, a foundation affiliated with the Unification Church.

At the banquet, Mr. Moon said emperors, kings and presidents had “declared to all heaven and earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s savior, messiah, returning lord and true parent.”

He added that the founders of the world’s great religions, along with figures like Marx, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin, had “found strength in my teachings, mended their ways and been reborn as new persons.”

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