'Moonies' founder dies, aged 92


Sun Myung Moon, the Korean-born founder of the Unification Church and self-proclaimed messiah who built a secretive global business empire that sells cars, guns, newspapers and sushi, has died. He was 92.

Moon died in the early hours of this morning at a church- owned hospital in Gapyeong County, northeast of Seoul, the church said in an e-mailed statement.

He had entered the intensive-care unit of St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul with complications from a cold and pneumonia in August.

To thousands of followers, Moon was the benevolent "True Father" who was asked by Jesus to complete his unfinished mission on Earth. To detractors, he was a megalomaniacal cult leader who exploited disciples though brainwashing, separated them from their families and used their labor to amass a personal fortune.

"I don't think there will be any individual who will take his place," said Frederick Sontag, a former professor of religion at Pomona College in California who studied Moon's organisation, in a 2007 interview. "He is too powerful a figure."

Moon arrived in the US from South Korea in 1971 and gained attention when he came to the defence of president Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis two years later. A staunch anti-Communist who had been imprisoned in North Korea, he organised "God Loves Richard Nixon" rallies on Capitol Hill and met with the president in the White House.

He built his US following by touring the country and delivering fiery speeches translated from Korean into English. He deployed eager young acolytes to street corners, where they sold flowers and candles and became known as "Moonies".

"How does a preacher with murky credentials draw a crowd in jaded New York City?" Time magazine asked in September 1974 after 25,000 of Mr Moon's followers packed Madison Square Garden.

"Simple. You field a corps of 2,000 tireless, polite young buttonholers who spend weeks offering people free tickets. Invest $300,000 on publicity for the one-night stand - far more than Billy Graham has ever spent for an eight-day crusade."

Madison Square Garden was also the site of one of Mr Moon's most famous undertakings, a mass wedding of 2,075 couples in 1982. He faced widespread criticism for his aggressive recruitment practices. Former Unification Church members said they were lied to - a church-approved practice known as heavenly deception - deprived of sleep and beaten by church followers. Many turned over their savings to Moon's organisation.

The US government also took aim at the preacher. In 1978, a congressional committee found evidence of Moon's ties to Korean intelligence agencies and concluded that his organisation "systematically violated US tax, immigration, banking, currency and Foreign Agents Registration Act laws."

He was convicted in May 1982 of failing to report $162,000 in income on his tax returns and served 13 months in the medium- security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, and a halfway house. Moon claimed that the prosecution was political retribution for his earlier support of the unpopular Nixon. He had problems in other countries as well. He was banned from entering the UK from 1995 until 2005 on the grounds that his presence wouldn't be "conducive to the common good for reasons of public order."

The evangelist was also labeled a bigot. He referred to homosexuals as "dirty, dung-eating dogs" and said Jews were to blame for the Holocaust because they betrayed Jesus by handing him over to the Romans. He claimed to have personally helped the spirits of Hitler and Stalin become "reborn as new persons."

The number of his followers was the subject of conjecture throughout his life. In the 1970s, the church said it had 600,000 adherents worldwide, including 300,000 in South Korea, 200,000 in Japan and 30,000 in the US. The church's official worldwide membership in 1981 rose to 3 million, a figure most experts dismissed.

In 1999, the New York Times estimated the number of Moon's followers in the United States at about 3,000. Through a web of companies, foundations and non-profit organisations, he had controlled the Washington Times newspaper; the United Press International wire service; Washington-based Atlantic Video, one of the biggest independent broadcasting facilities in the US; the Hotel New Yorker in Manhattan and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.


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