ASAN, South Korea (AP) - From South Korea to South America, Rev. Sun Myung Moon married tens of thousands of couples in the Unification Church's largest mass wedding in a decade and potentially the last for the 89-year-old leader.
The spectacle comes as Moon, the church's controversial founder moves to hand day-to-day leadership over to three sons and a daughter, though the Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, the 30-year-old tapped to take over religious affairs, insists his father is healthy and remains in charge.
More than 20,000 people gathered at Sun Moon University campus in Asan, south of Seoul, for the "blessing ceremony" on Wednesday while some 20,000 more joined simultaneous ceremonies in the U.S., Brazil, Australia and elsewhere.
Some were new couples in unions arranged by the church; others were renewing their wedding vows. The brides wore wedding dresses or their national dress; the men wore black suits with red ties, with white scarves around their necks.
The global ceremony is meant to mark key anniversaries in the leader's life: his 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his marriage to Han Hak-ja, church officials said.
Brides in veils and grooms in white gloves -- hailing from South Korea, the U.S., Japan, Europe and elsewhere -- posed for photos in Asan and practiced shouting "Hurrah!" at the wedding rehearsal.
"I'm a little bit nervous," admitted Rie Furuta. She and groom Tadakuni Sano, both 25-year-olds from Japan, had met only three times since their marriage was arranged in March.
Critics say the weddings show the church operates like a cult, brainwashing adherents into turning their lives and salaries over to Moon. In the past, Moon routinely paired off couples, with many first meeting on their wedding day.
These days, arranged couples usually meet several times beforehand, church officials said. But they're not expected to skip off to a honeymoon; couples are required to observe a 40-day waiting period before living together.
During the ceremony, Moon sprinkled holy water before the couples exchanged rings. After blessing the newlyweds, he led them in a loud cheer amid a shower of white confetti.
"I pray that you become good husbands and wives, and men and women who can represent the world's 6 billion humankind," he told them, sobbing and clasping his wife's hands.
"I think my wife is the most beautiful bride here," said Lee Dong-seok, a 32-year-old computer programmer from South Korea tying the knot with Japanese office worker Fumi Oshima.
His 28-year-old bride replied: "I'm so happy. I like my husband because he's very trustworthy."
In the past, the Moons wore elaborate, high priest-style white gowns and headpieces for the blessing ceremonies. But on Wednesday, Moon was dressed in a simple black suit, a rose pinned to his lapel; his wife wore a white blouse and skirt. Their austerity reflected the church's toned-down stance in recent years.
Moon, a self-proclaimed Messiah who says Jesus Christ called upon him to carry out his unfinished work, has courted controversy and criticism since founding the Unification Church in Seoul in 1954.
He held his first mass wedding in the early 1960s, arranging the marriages of 24 couples and renewing the vows of 12 others.
The weddings grew in scale; the first held outside South Korea was at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1982. That one drew thousands of participants -- and some protesters. This week's was the largest since 1999.
Moon frequently paired off people from different countries as part of his aim to create a multicultural religious world.
"My wish is to completely tear down barriers and to create a world in which everyone becomes one," Moon said in his recent autobiography.
In Washington, D.C., where children played as their parents renewed their vows, Fumi Oliver called the marriages a positive political instrument.
"This is the best way to make peace," said the Japan native who married an American, the Rev. Zagery Oliver, 12 years ago. "International, intercultural, interracial marriage is the best way to make peace."
The mood in Australia was serene but joyful, said Enrique Ledesma, Australian director of the church-affiliated Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
Laudicea Corina de Padua called her wedding in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a dream come true.
"Taking part in a mass wedding only adds to the profoundness -- I barely have the words to describe what I feel," said the 40-year-old, dressed in a shimmering wedding gown.
Brazilian church leaders hand-picked 38-year-old metalworker Manoel Marcelino dos Santos as her husband.
"Marrying in this way, with so many other people around the world, will give more strength to our union," he said. "It feels like they are all a part of us."
But not everyone was happy Wednesday. In South Korea, one bride sat forlornly with a black jacket thrown over her white wedding dress, tears streaming down her face.
"I came here against my will," she said. "I'm too young to get married. I don't understand why I have to do something like this." She refused to give her name or age, saying only that she was a student.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee in Seoul and Soo Bin Park in Asan; Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Catherine Shoichet in Mexico City; Jessica Gresko in Washington and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.