GAPYEONG, South Korea — The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, best known for conducting mass weddings involving thousands of couples, was a self-proclaimed messiah, but he was at least as good at attracting dollars as he was at drawing converts.
His Unification Church claims 3 million followers, though ex-members and critics put the number at no more than 100,000. There is no questioning the vastness of the business empire Moon created through his church: ventures in several countries from hospitals and newspapers to cars and sushi, and even professional sports teams and a ballet troupe.
Moon died Monday at a church-owned hospital near his home in Gapyeong County, northeast of Seoul, two weeks after being hospitalized with pneumonia, Unification Church spokesman Ahn Ho-yeul told The Associated Press. Moon's wife and children were at his side, Ahn said. He was 92.
Flags flew at half-staff Monday at a Unification Church in Seoul. Followers trickled into the building, some wiping away tears. One woman bowed and cried before a copy of the church-owned Segye Times newspaper, which was placed on a table and had a large picture of Moon on its front page. Another woman bowed before a small statue of Moon and his wife.
"I am devastated," Bo Hi Pak, chairman of the Unification Church-supported Korean Cultural Foundation, said outside the hospital where Moon had been cared for. "I cannot control my emotions and focus on my work due to the sadness of losing a father."
Moon's body was transferred to the church's gargantuan white palace on Mount Cheonseong overlooking the lakes and wooded forests of Gapyeong County. His funeral will take place Sept. 15 after a 13-day mourning period, with a massive new sports and cultural center built recently on the church's sprawling campus accepting mourners starting Thursday, the church said in a statement. Moon is to be buried on Mount Cheonseong.
The mourning period is not only more than the usual three to five days in South Korea, but longer than the mourning periods for late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. It was in keeping with Moon's grandiose life, in which he encouraged followers to call him and his wife "True Parents."
Moon, who was born in a rural part of what is now North Korea, founded his Bible-based religion in Seoul in 1954, a year after the end of the Korean War. He cultivated friends among political leaders in the U.S. and – though he was an ardent anti-communist – in North Korea, though he served time in prison in both countries.
He gained notoriety by marrying off thousands of followers in mass wedding ceremonies, usually not long after being arranged to marry by Moon himself. Moon often paired up strangers hailing from different countries as part of his vision of a multicultural, family-oriented religious world.
The church has faced considerable controversy over the years, and has been accused of using devious recruitment tactics and duping followers out of money. Parents of young followers in the United States and elsewhere expressed worries that their children were brainwashed into joining.
The church rebuffs the allegations, saying many new religious movements faced similar accusations in their early years. Moon's followers were often called "Moonies," a term many found pejorative.
The Unification Church claims 3 million followers, including 100,000 in the U.S., and says it has sent missionaries to 194 countries, according to Ahn.
Richard Panzer, president of the Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown, N.Y., said Moon's legacy will live on.
"We believe that Reverend Moon was a historical figure in the history of religion," he said. "And that he made an enormous contribution to understanding of the suffering heart of God and a lot of contributions toward world peace."
The seminary, established by Moon in 1975, is an interfaith institution with Buddhist, Christian and Muslim professors, Panzer said.
The church also quietly amassed lucrative business ventures over the years, including the Washington Times newspaper; the New Yorker Hotel, a midtown Manhattan art deco landmark; and a seafood distribution firm that supplies sushi to Japanese restaurants across the U.S. It gave the University of Bridgeport $110 million over more than a decade to keep the Connecticut school operating.
In South Korea, it acquired a ski resort, professional football teams, schools, hospitals and other businesses. It also operates the Potonggang Hotel in Pyongyang, jointly operates the North Korean automaker and has a huge "peace" institute in the North Korean capital.
Moon had hoped to help bring about the reunification of Korea during his lifetime.
Moon was born in 1920 in North Phyongan Province at a time when Pyongyang was known as a center for Korea's Christians. He said he was 16 when Jesus Christ first appeared to him and told him to finish the work he had begun on Earth 2,000 years earlier.
Christianity fell out of favor after the Korean Peninsula was divided into the communist North and the U.S.-backed South in 1945, and while preaching, Moon was imprisoned in the late 1940s by North Korean authorities and accused of spying for South Korea, an allegation he denied.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he went to South Korea. After leaving his North Korean wife, he married Hak Ja Han Moon in 1960.
In South Korea, Moon quickly drew young acolytes to his conservative, family-oriented value system and unusual interpretation of the Bible. The church's doctrine is a mixture of Christian, Confucian and traditional Korean values.
Moon conducted his first mass wedding in Seoul in the early 1960s, and the "blessing ceremonies" grew in scale over the years. A 1982 wedding at New York's Madison Square Garden – the first outside South Korea – drew thousands of participants.
"International and intercultural marriages are the quickest way to bring about an ideal world of peace," Moon said in a 2009 autobiography. "People should marry across national and cultural boundaries with people from countries they consider to be their enemies so that the world of peace can come that much more quickly."
Moon began rebuilding his relationship with North Korea in 1991, meeting with the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, in the eastern industrial city of Hamhung. In his autobiography, Moon said he urged Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions, and said Kim responded by saying that his atomic program was for peaceful purposes and he had no intention to use it to "kill my own people."
"The two of us were able to communicate well about our shared hobbies of hunting and fishing," Moon wrote. "At one point, we each felt we had so much to say to the other that we just started talking like old friends meeting after a long separation."
When Kim died in 1994, Moon sent a condolence delegation to North Korea, drawing criticism from conservatives at home. The late Kim Jong Il, who succeeded his father as North Korean leader, sent roses, prized wild ginseng, Rolex watches and other gifts to Moon on his birthday each year. Moon said Kim Il Sung had instructed Kim Jong Il that "after I die, if there are things to discuss pertaining to North-South relations, you must always seek the advice of President Moon."
The church also sent a delegation to Pyongyang after Kim Jong Il died in December and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Un.
Moon also developed a good relationship with conservative American leaders such as former Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Yet he also served 13 months at a U.S. federal prison in the mid-1980s after a New York City jury convicted him of filing false tax returns. The church says the U.S. government persecuted Moon because of his growing influence and popularity with young Americans.
One of the more bizarre chapters in Moon's relationship with Washington came in 2004, when more than a dozen U.S. lawmakers attended a "coronation ceremony" for Moon and his wife in which Moon declared himself humanity's savior and said his teachings have helped Hitler and Stalin be "reborn as new persons." Some of the congressmen later said they had been misled and hadn't been aware that Moon would be at the event.
In later years, the church adopted a lower profile in the United States and focused on building its businesses. Moon lived for more than 30 years in the United States, the church said.
In recent years, Moon handed over day-to-day control of the empire to his children. In 2008, at age 88, he was in a helicopter crash near Seoul but suffered only minor injuries.
Still, in 2009 he presided over a wedding ceremony for 45,000 people marrying for the first time or renewing their vows – one of his last huge mass weddings.
Moon and his wife have 10 surviving sons and daughters, according to the church.
There are reports of a rift within the family. One of Moon's sons reportedly sued his mother in 2011 demanding the return of more than $22 million allegedly sent without his consent from a company he runs to his mother's missionary group. A court ruled that the money was a loan but ordered it returned, the Yonhap news agency reported.
Another son committed suicide in 1999, plunging to his death from the 17th floor from a Reno, Nevada, hotel, officials said. Two other sons reportedly also died early, one in a train wreck and another in a car accident.
At the time of the car accident, the son was engaged to marry the prima ballerina daughter of Bo Hi Pak, the head of the church's Korean Cultural Foundation. The wedding, dubbed a "spiritual" marriage, went ahead as planned even after his death and the daughter-in-law, Julia Moon, is a prominent figure in South Korea's arts scene.
Moon's U.S.-born youngest son, the Rev. Hyung-jin Moon, was named the church's top religious director in April 2008. Other children run the church's businesses and charitable activities.
Hyung-jin Moon told The Associated Press in February 2010 that his father's offspring do not see themselves as his successors.
"Our role is not inheriting that messianic role," he said. "Our role is more of the apostles ... where we become the bridge between understanding what kind of lives (our) two parents have lived."