By the CNN Wire Staff
The Rev. Sun Myung Moon – a controversial religious and political figure who founded the Unification Church, a major institution in East Asia and beyond that gained fame decades ago for its mass weddings – died early Monday in South Korea, the church said.
The Universal Peace Federation said on its website that Moon died early Monday morning of complications related to pneumonia. He was 92.
“Our True Father passed into the spiritual world at 1:54 AM Monday, Sept. 3rd, Korea time,” a message on a Unification Church English-language website said.
Ahn Ho-yeol, a church spokesman, said Moon’s funeral will be held Thursday, with “individual prayers” planned for the three days until then.
“Rev. Moon died from overwork, from frequent trips aboard, including to the U.S., and from morning prayers which caused respiratory disease,” Ahn said.
The Washington Times, one of several publications that Moon founded, similarly reported Moon’s death.
“Words cannot convey my heart at this time,” Thomas P. McDevitt, the Times’ president, said in a story on the newspaper’s website. “Rev. Sun Myung Moon has long loved America, and he believed in the need for a powerful free press to convey accurate information and moral values to people in a free world.”
McDevitt added that the Times is a “tangible expression of those two loves.” In 2010, the newspaper was sold to a group operating on Moon’s behalf, according to a statement on the paper’s website.
Doctors put Moon in intensive care in a Seoul hospital last month after he fell ill, said Ahn, the church spokesman, at the time. Physicians then gave him a 50 percent chance of survival.
Days later, one of his sons, the Rev. Hyung Jin Moon, noted in a sermon posted on a church website that his father had multiple health problems in recent years, including heart surgery performed in the United States about 10 years ago. But still, he pushed on with his life’s mission.
“Father, who is responsible to save the world, pushed himself way beyond his limits,” said the son, who himself has a leading role in the church.
Moon had been a high-profile international evangelist for decades, having said that Jesus Christ came to him in the 1930s and “told him to finish (Jesus’) mission,” according to James Beverley, a professor at the Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto.
The Unification Church believes Jesus was divine but that he is not God, a stance that puts it outside the bounds of traditional Christianity. Followers regard Moon as the messiah.
His church officially started in the 1950s, with missionaries being dispatched around the world by the end of that decade. His was one of several religious movements that emerged after World War II and the Korean War in South Korea and Japan, drawing from “a tremendous pool of people … looking for answers as to why the world had turned (against them),” said Virginia Commonwealth University professor David Bromley.
Globally, the church’s reach may have peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s, as hundreds of thousands joined the singular religious movement, said Beverley. Critics have said the controversial Moon leads a cult whose followers were colloquially known as “Moonies.”
“Rev. Moon demanded a lot of members – a lot of (them) left their families and they lived very sacrificially, especially in the 1970s,” Beverley said. “Moon claims to be the true father of humanity, (and) his wife is the true mother.”
Today, the professor estimates that the Unification Church has hundreds of thousands of followers still in South Korea and Japan, with far fewer elsewhere around the globe.
In his role as church leader, Moon is famous for conducting mass weddings, including one in 1982 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and one in 1995 in South Korea uniting 360,000 couples.
“It was his way of emphasizing the importance of the family, plus all these couples get married under his blessing and that is basically their path to heaven,” Beverley said.