, GAPYEONG, Sept 3 – 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 Monday at the age of 92.
Moon, who was hospitalised with complications from pneumonia more than two weeks ago, died shortly before 2:00 am (1700 GMT 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.
“He was our father and God’s messiah. His body was custom-made by God so we believed he would live until 100,” Moon’s close aide Bo Hi Pak told reporters in Gapyeong.
“Now with him gone to heaven, all of us are tremendously saddened. We are in the deepest sorrow,” a tearful Pak said.
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.
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.
An editorial in the Washington Times noted Moon’s staunch anti-communism and defence of family values down the decades.
“Faith. Family. Freedom. Service. The conservative values… serve as a poignant memorial to the wisdom of the man whose foresight and courage sounded the charge to fight the battles of the day,” the daily said.
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.