SEOUL — Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon has died at the age of 92. Moon succumbed to complications from pneumonia early Monday in a church-run hospital east of the South Korean capital, Seoul.
The Unification Church, which asserts its founder is revered as the Messiah by millions of people, says Sun Myung Moon has now “ascended” after being surrounded by family and close disciples in his last hours.
Moon leaves behind not only an apocalyptic religious movement, but a global empire possibly still worth billions of dollars.
Its businesses are involved in publishing, education, real estate, the hospitality industry, health care and even gun-manufacturing. A church-controlled seafood conglomerate is believed to supply most of the fish for sushi eaten in America.
Spokesman Kim Hyung-suk at the South Korean government's Unification Ministry (which is tasked with North-South relations in lieu of diplomatic ties) acknowledges discussions are underway on whether a delegation of mourners from Pyongyang would be given rare permission to enter the South for Moon's funeral.
Kim says the South Korean government will make a decision about this but it is not appropriate to publicly discuss it at the moment.
Moon was born in 1920 in what is now North Korea. He started his church in 1954. His followers became known as “Moonies” with the church gaining a reputation as a cult with deceptive tactics in recruiting followers and maintaining tight control over their lives.
The group gained notoriety for mass weddings where couples, who had never met, were married to other church followers selected by its founder, who presided over the ceremonies in a robe and with a crown atop his head.
George Chryssides, an honorary research fellow in contemporary religion at Britain's University of Birmingham, says Moon and his church were shunned by established Christian organizations.
“Within mainstream Christianity there is an absolute rejection that anyone should produce new scriptures or claim to be a new messiah," siad Chryssides. "It is certainly something that does not go down well in religious circles.”
Professor Tark Ji-il, who teaches religion at Busan Presbyterian University, contends that in the Unification Church's theology the ultimate goal was to establish a heavenly kingdom on the Korean peninsula with Moon as king.
Tark says this did not deviate since the church was established and its vast business activities were focused on this goal.
Japan was once considered to be a primary source of the church's wealth, in part derived from persuasive door-to-door peddling of religious icons. But there were more nebulous allegations there from the late 1960's, when numerous Japanese ultra-nationalists and gangsters joined the church.
Over the years Moon sought to influence politics in both South Korea and the United States.
In the 1970's he was the target of U.S. government investigations.
In 1982, Moon was convicted of tax fraud and spent 13 months in a U.S. federal prison. He denied allegations his attempts to influence lawmakers were done in collusion with South Korea's intelligence agency, an allegation raised during a subsequent congressional investigation.
Even though he once was an ardent anti-communist, Moon later put ideology aside to do business with Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, where he had once been imprisoned in the late 1940's.
Chryssides, author of The Advent of Sun Myung Moon: The Origins, Beliefs and Practices of the Unification Church, predicts money, rather than theology, will be Moon's lasting legacy.
“It is also something that will keep his organization going in whatever form the new leadership sees fit,” he said.
Leadership roles in the church's sprawling empire in recent years have been split among several of Moon's children. Some of the businesses have struggled amid reports of infighting among the heirs. It is unclear if the family-run empire will be able to remain intact without its charismatic founder, who regarded himself as the Messiah.
Professor Tark, who is also editor-in-chief of South Korea's Contemporary Religion magazine is skeptical.
Tark says the conflict among Moon's sons over financial assets is becoming serious. He notes that media accounts refer to the in-fighting as “the rebellion of princes.”
Moon officially handed over the presidency of the church to his youngest son, Hyung-jin, (also known as Sean). But Chryssides says Moon's widow, Han Hak-ja, retains a critical position within the church.
“Theologically she is the Messiah, as well. In Unification thoughts, there is not just one messiah there are the two - there's the male and the female," added Chryssides. "So what role she is going to have is not at all clear. And I think anything could happen.”
Professor Jo Eung-tae, in the unification theology department at the church's Sun Moon University in Asan (South Korea), expects the children to remain subordinate to their mother.
Jo says, overall, Han will now lead the entire church while her children will have their own roles, with the youngest son responsible for religious activities.
Moon was quoted in his teachings predicting “a big commotion” after his death, but promised he would continue to lead his church from the spirit world.