x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Thousands of Moonies marry in first 'post-Moon' mass wedding

The event carried a special resonance, with the widow of the Unification Church's founder, Hak Ja-han, presiding for the first time without her husband who died five months ago.

Couples from around the world pray in a mass wedding ceremony at the CheongShim Peace World Centre in Gapyeong, South Korea, on Sunday. Lee Jin-man / AP Photo
Couples from around the world pray in a mass wedding ceremony at the CheongShim Peace World Centre in Gapyeong, South Korea, on Sunday. Lee Jin-man / AP Photo

GAPYEONG, SOUTH KOREA // Thousands of Unification Church members got married in a mass wedding in South Korea today - the first since the death of their "messiah" and controversial church founder Sun Myung-moon.

Some 3,500 identically-dressed couples - many of mixed nationality who had met just days before - took part in the ceremony at the church's global headquarters in Gapyeong, east of the capital Seoul.

Mass weddings, some held in giant sports stadia with tens of thousands of couples, have long been a signature feature of the church and one that "Moonie" critics have pointed to as evidence of cult underpinnings.

Today's event carried a special resonance, with Moon's 70-year-old widow Hak Ja-han presiding for the first time without her husband who died five months ago, aged 92, of complications from pneumonia.

The church's mass weddings began in the early 1960s. At first, they involved just a few dozen couples but the numbers mushroomed over the years.

In 1997, 30,000 couples tied the knot in Washington, and two years later around 21,000 filled the Olympic Stadium in Seoul.

Nearly all were personally matched by Moon, who taught that romantic love led to sexual promiscuity, mismatched couples and dysfunctional societies.

Many were married just hours after meeting for the first time, and Moon's preference for cross-cultural, international marriages meant that they often shared no common language.

In recent years, matchmaking responsibilities have shifted towards parents, but 400 of the church members married yesterday had chosen to be paired off a few days before at an "engagement ceremony" presided over by Moon's widow.

"Yeah, I was pretty nervous," admitted Jin Davidson, 21, a student from the United States, whose Australian father and Japanese mother were matched by Moon.

"Then all of a sudden she popped up in front of me, and I said OK," Mr Davidson said of his Japanese bride-to-be, Kotona Shimizu, also 21.

"We struggle a little to communicate right now, as I speak no Japanese at all, and she only speaks a little English, but we see it as an exciting challenge and proof of our faith," he said.

Those who choose to be matched by the church must confirm under oath that they are virgins, and after their wedding the couple must refrain from sexual relations for a minimum of 40 days.