Sun Myung Moon, Unification Church Founder, Dies

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, has died at the age of 92 in Korea. Unification church members viewed him as a messiah, despite allegations of cult-like behavior and financial fraud. Moon was known for presiding over mass weddings and starting the conservative newspaper The Washington Times.

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Followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon are in mourning today. The 92-year-old founder of the controversial Unification Church died Sunday in South Korea. The evangelical leader was often accused of running a cult with millions of followers nicknamed Moonies. He's perhaps best known for joining tens of thousands of couples together at mass weddings, and more recently for his billion dollar business empire. Reporter Doualy Xaykaothao visited Reverend Moon's church in Seoul and brings us this report.

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DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: As the Rev. Sun Myung Moon lay on his deathbed, followers sang and cried at a service, praying that Moon would recover from what doctors said were complications related to pneumonia. Gunnard Johnston was there, alongside his Japanese wife, a teenage son, and hundreds of others at Seoul's Unification Church. Johnston joined the Unificationist movement 37 years ago.

GUNNARD JOHNSTON: Reverend Moon helped me to understand who Jesus really was. And I can see in his life that he is being treated by the powers that be exactly the way Jesus was being treated. So if I love Jesus, I have to love Reverend Moon, because he is doing exactly what Jesus called him to do.

XAYKAOTHAO: Moon was born in what is now North Korea and claimed that when he was in his teens, Jesus appeared before him and asked him to continue his work on Earth. According to Moon, this meant becoming parent to all of humanity. Followers call Reverend Moon True Father and his wife, Hak Ja Han, True Mother.

Moon is a self-declared messiah, who drew criticism and charges of brainwashing for demanding that followers cut ties with their families and adopt austere lives. At the same time, Moon built a multi-billion dollar business empire, which includes a major seafood distributor, The Washington Times newspaper, a gun factory, and the Art Deco New Yorker Hotel.

But Nansook Hong, a former daughter-in-law of Reverend Moon, says in her book, "In the Shadow of the Moons," Reverend Moon is not Jesus. Hong married Moon's oldest son when she was just 15 and years later divorced him after reporting his cocaine addiction and physical abuse. Her ex-husband later died of heart failure.

In a "60 Minutes" interview with the late Mike Wallace, Hong explains how she felt betrayed by the church leader.

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MIKE WALLACE: Why are you telling this story?

NANSOOK HONG: Because I feel that I was duped.

WALLACE: Duped?

HONG: Duped. I feel I was conned, and I had a certain naive, I think, idealism that I wanted to work for God. And I do think a lot of people have that, and a lot of organizations, like Moon, do take full advantage of those people, and I was one of them.

XAYKAOTHAO: Other Christians dismiss Unificationists as a cult and not a true religion. But Dr. Bo Hi Pak, one of the few in Moon's closely guarded inner circles, disagrees. He preached to a packed audience at Sunday's service, while flashing photos of Reverend Moon with former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung and the late Kim Jong Il.

DR. BO HI PAK: He is truly the world's finest peacemaker. From the religious point of view, he is our father. He's our messiah. He's our second coming.

XAYKAOTHAO: The church is in the midst of preparing for Moon's funeral, expected mid-month. In the meantime, the South Korean government is considering if it will allow representatives from North Korea to attend the memorial.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul.

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