I don't like the use of the term 'cult': a view from inside the Irish church of Rev Sun Myung Moon


Rev Sun Myung Moon, who founded the Unification Church, died this week . One Irish member says his church has changed from the secretive set-up of the ‘Moonies’ to an inclusive congregation

COLM Ó CIONNAITH is a 39-year-old father of three who is one of an estimated 50 active members of the Unification Church in Ireland. This week Rev Sun Myung Moon, who founded the church in 1954 and was also known for his extensive, worldwide business interests, died in South Korea.

Raised a Catholic, Ó Cionnaith joined the church in 1991, while he was working in Manchester. Like many, his entry into the church came via a chance encounter on the street. “I was into drinking and smoking and normal things any 18-year-old would do. I had a strong Catholic belief. Two [Unification Church members] were standing together and witnessing, as we call it, which is handing out leaflets and asking questions such as ‘Is there a God?’ and ‘Is there a spiritual world?’

“They asked whether I would like to study divine principles, and this revealed a lot to me. It explained about the fall of man and how Jesus came as a second Adam to restore the mistakes of the first Adam. After I studied for a month or two I was happy to do my missionary training. It involved fundraising and going abroad and spreading the word.”

Ó Cionnaith spent nine months in Bulgaria, as many members of the church were mobilised to spread the message of the church to Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While he embraced his new religion wholeheartedly, his family were less enthusiastic.

“They were negative towards it, being strong Catholics and also because of the media treatment we received. It goes back to the 1970s, when people were allegedly brainwashed and they called us Moonies. This scares parents when they hear the term, as it conjures up images of a strange, secretive group, which has not been my experience. As the years went on my parents formed a bond with my children a little more. I try and get them to see the other side. They don’t trust me. They still think I’m gullible or deluded. It is very hard to reach them.”

Like many members of the church, Ó Cionnaith and his wife married in a large ceremony. In their case it was a stadium in Slovakia with upwards of 2,000 members exchanging vows at the same time. “My wife’s parents were there, so that was a very joyful experience. At that time my parents didn’t come over. They didn’t oppose it, but they thought it wouldn’t last. They believed all the nonsense that is written. Getting married in a stadium sounds impersonal, and I’m sure for lots of women it’s not their dream wedding, but it is our only sacrament.”

As for those who call the Unification Church a cult, Colm accepts that in the past some practices may have been too forceful. “I don’t like the use of the term [cult]. The original meaning of cult was different, and Jesus could have been said to have been a cult leader. ‘New religious movement’ is a more helpful term. I’m not saying everything in the past was great, and maybe some of the tactics were overexuberant. I have never experienced anything unethical or untoward. I’m not naive enough to think everyone acted 100 per cent in a way that was without any sort of coercion. Our faith is one where we don’t drink or smoke and we don’t believe in sex before marriage. It is fairly traditional and similar to traditional Catholic or Christian values.”

Ó Cionnaith doesn’t believe the numbers in the worldwide church will be affected by Moon’s death this week at the age of 92. The Irish members are waiting to hear how they will mark the death of their founder, for which, he says, they have been prepared for several years.

PART OF THEcontroversy around the church comes from Moon’s imprisonment for tax evasion in the US in 1982. Ó Cionnaith says: “When he supported President Nixon at Watergate, because he was against communism, this got the ire of the Democratic Party, and this was the cause of his imprisonment for tax evasion. I met him in Dublin in 2005. He was very focused and gave a four-and-a-half-hour speech in the Gresham hotel as part of a world tour.”

The church has not expanded in Ireland since the 1970s, which Ó Cionnaith attributes to “misinformation” in the media about the expectations of church members. They hold Sunday services at North Great George’s Street, in Dublin, and he is hopeful his children and others will form the next generation of church members in Ireland. “Our second generation is starting to drive the membership levels up again. We’re not relying on young converts. This always drew problems for us in the media, as parents think they are losing someone. In the past people were sent out on missionary activities, but now we have regular services here and people can stay at home and live with their parents and still be members of our church.”

'Inclusive' Unification Church in Ireland

The Unification Church in Ireland began in Ireland in the 1970s, with the introduction of a few missionaries in Dublin and Cork as part of the worldwide expansion plan of its founder, Rev Sun Myung Moon (below), who died this week. The group reported rapid levels of recruitment in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, but there are no official figures from the church or the Central Statistics Office (CSO) to substantiate this. In the 1980s, the recruitment methods the church used around the world were questioned, with many references to the apparent “brainwashing” of members, and the emergence of arranged mass weddings. The Irish government removed the charitable status of the group in 1982, but it was later reinstated.

In the 1990s the church began to move away from the recruitment of members and towards interfaith dialogue and investments in social projects. In Ireland it has linked up with other minority religions such as the Islamic, Sikh and Hindu communities, and Scientology.

The church has a much lower public profile than in the 1980s in Ireland, but continues to create a space for itself as a socially active religious organisation, focused on inclusion, Christian unity and shared humanitarian goals.

Olivia Cosgrove

Olivia Cosgrove, of the department of sociology at the University of Limerick, is co-editor of Ireland’s New Religious Movements (Cambridge Scholars, 2011)

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