ASAN, South Korea — Brides in white gowns joined grooms in black suits and red ties Wednesday for the Unification Church's biggest mass wedding in a decade — a spectacle church officials say involves 40,000 people around the world.
The "blessing ceremony" is the church's largest since 1999, and may well be the last on such a grand scale officiated by the 89-year-old Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial founder of the Unification Church.
Nearly a half-century after arranging the marriages of 24 couples in his first mass wedding, Moon offered blessings Wednesday for more than 20,000 people gathered at Sun Moon University, the school he founded in Asan, south of Seoul.
About half are marrying for the first time, some in marriages arranged by Moon himself; the rest are renewing their wedding vows. Twenty-thousand others are expected to watch via Internet broadcast at simultaneous ceremonies taking place from Sweden to Brazil.
Handing leadership to children
The mass wedding comes as Moon is moving to hand day-to-day leadership over to his children. On Wednesday, the Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, the 30-year-old son tapped to take over religious leadership, opened the ceremony at the flower-festooned altar.
"The blessing you are receiving today is the most precious thing, one cannot exchange anything in the world," he said.
He insists his father remains in charge of the church and in good health. The massive global ceremony is meant to mark two key anniversaries in the leader's life: his 90th birthday and his 50th wedding anniversary, church official say.
Row after row of brides wearing veils and grooms in white gloves — hailing from South Korea, the U.S., Japan and Europe — joined married couples renewing their vows. Earlier, they posed for photos, sang and practiced shouting "Hurrah!" as the wedding rehearsal got under way.
"I'm a little bit nervous," Rie Furuta, 25, admitted before the ceremony. She had her groom, Tadakuni Sano, both 25-year-olds from Japan, have met only three times since their marriage was arranged in March.
Moon picks followers' spouses
Critics who accuse the church of engaging in cultlike practices say the mass weddings prove it brainwashes its followers. Followers routinely let Moon pick their spouses on the belief that he has divine insight, many meet their future spouses for the first time at the mass weddings.
Moon, a self-proclaimed Messiah who says he was 15 when Jesus Christ called upon him to carry out his unfinished work, has courted controversy and criticism since founding the Unification Church in Seoul in 1954.
He held his first mass wedding in the early 1960s, arranging the marriages of 24 couples himself and renewing the vows of 12 married couples.
Over the next two decades, the weddings grew in scale and began to involve followers from Japan, Europe, Africa, Latin America, the U.S. and elsewhere. A 1982 mass wedding at Madison Square Garden in New York, the first held outside South Korea, drew tens of thousands of participants — and protesters. The ceremonies had been smaller in recent years.
"My wish is to completely tear down barriers and to create a world in which everyone becomes one," Moon said in his recent autobiography. He says the blessing ceremonies pairing followers from different backgrounds are part of his vision of building a multicultural religious world.
In Washington D.C., children played in the back as churchgoers watched the ceremony on a large screen flanked by the flags of South Korea, Japan and the United States.
‘Best way to make peace’
"This is the best way to make peace," said Fumi Oliver, a native of Japan who married an American, the Rev. Zagery Oliver, 12 years ago. "International, intercultural, interracial marriage is the best way to make peace."
"We'll be connected online with Korea and we'll be following the ceremony live on a large screen here in our temple in Sao Paulo," he said, with officials translating the blessing prayer, exchange of rings and spreading of holy water into Portuguese.
"It's going to be a great spiritual event for us," said Irimar Possamai, president of the Unification Church in Brazil.
A ceremony was taking place at the Unification Church-owned New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, as well as at an apartment in Oslo, Norway, and a church in Sweden.
A ceremony in Honduras will mark a new start for the movement, said Omar Valle, president of the Unification Church in Tegucigalpa. He said 25 couples will renew their vows.
"Through this ceremony, we join a large global family, all as brothers," he said.
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