GAPYEONG, Republic of Korea, Sep 7 – Thousands of Unification Church couples took part in a mass wedding Thursday to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of its founder Sun Myung Moon, revered as a messiah by his followers.
Around 4,000 couples from 64 countries crowded the hall in Gapyeong, organisers said, just over half of them getting married and the rest blessing existing unions.
The grooms and brides sat in rows of white plastic chairs, some fidgeting nervously while others took selfies showing off their wedding rings before giant posters of Moon.
“I feel so nervous,” said Davison Zulu, a 20-year-old from Zambia, adding it was a moment he and his bride had waited for “for so long”.
“Reverend Moon to me, he simply means the messiah and the sign of good,” he said.
Moon died of complications from pneumonia in 2012 at the age of 92, leaving behind a church noted for its mass weddings and diverse business interests.
At first the ceremonies involved just a few dozen couples but numbers mushroomed over the years. In 1997, 30,000 couples tied the knot in Washington, and two years later around 21,000 filled the Olympic Stadium in Seoul.
In addition to those getting married in Gapyeong, 20,000 more couples took part in Thursday’s ceremony remotely by the internet.
During his lifetime, they were often personally matched by Moon, who taught that romantic love led to sexual promiscuity, mismatched couples and dysfunctional societies.
He often preferred cross-cultural marriages, arguing that in God’s eyes there were no such things as nationality or skin colour, and that such unions were a way to promote peace.
They also meant that couples sometimes shared no common language.
Moon was born in what is now North Korea and was sentenced to five years hard labour in 1948 by Communist authorities for preaching in public. Escaping during the Korean War, he founded the church in the South in 1954, proclaiming himself a messiah.
Its followers — who refer to him as True Father and his widow as True Mother — were dubbed “Moonies” and critics accused it of being a cult.
Moon later served nearly 12 months in prison for tax evasion in a US federal penitentiary.
But the church now claims around three million members worldwide.
“We pray that your sun will rise and the light of truth will evaporate all suffering from this earth,” his daughter Sun Jin Moon told the event.
Some followers lined up outside and bowed in formation while laying flowers on a long table.
In recent years, matchmaking responsibilities have largely shifted towards parents and the emergence of social media has made it easier for the bride and groom to “connect” before their wedding.
Vanessa from Singapore was introduced to her groom Ewald Schenkermayr, a 30-year-old from Austria, by her parents and kept in touch through emails and Skype conversations.
“We felt really close from the first Skype session,” Vanessa said, adding that going through her prospective husband’s Facebook page also helped getting to know him better.
“I just know more things about him, that he likes to travel and he likes coffee and heavy metal music.”
Tying the knot in the mass wedding was more meaningful as everyone in the hall was family to them, she added.
“Everyone is also brother and sister,” she said. It “makes everything more memorable and precious because all of us are sharing this precious moment together centering upon our heavenly parents”.