Gapyeong, South Korea • The Rev. Sun Myung Moon was a self-proclaimed messiah who built a global business empire. He called both North Korean leaders and American presidents his friends, but spent time in prisons in both countries. His followers around the world cherished him, while his detractors accused him of brainwashing recruits and extracting money from worshippers.
These contradictions did nothing to stop the founder of the Unification Church from turning his religious vision into a worldwide movement and a multibillion-dollar corporation stretching from the Korean Peninsula to the United States.
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.
Church officials planned to meet later Monday to discuss funeral arrangements. The church will likely hold a 13-day mourning period and start accepting mourners at its nearby religious center on Wednesday, Ahn said.
Moon founded his Bible-based religion in Seoul in 1954, a year after the Korean War ended, saying Jesus Christ personally called on him to complete his work.
The church gained fame and notoriety by marrying thousands of followers in mass ceremonies presided over by Moon himself. The couples often came from different countries and had never met, but were matched up by Moon in a bid to build a multicultural religious world.
Today, the Unification Church claims 3 million followers , including 100,000 members in the U.S., and has sent missionaries to 194 countries, Ahn said. But ex-members and critics say the figure is actually no more than 100,000 members worldwide.
The church's holdings included the Washington Times newspaper; Connecticut's Bridgeport University; 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 acquired a ski resort, a professional football team and other businesses in South Korea. It also operates a foreign-owned luxury hotel in North Korea and jointly operates a fledgling North Korean automaker.
The church has been accused of using devious recruitment tactics and duping followers out of money. Parents of followers in the United States and elsewhere have expressed worries that their children were brainwashed into joining. The church has pointed out that many new religious movements faced similar accusations in their early years. Moon's followers were often called "Moonies," a term many found pejorative.
Born in 1920 in a rural part of what is today North Korea, Moon 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. Moon, who tried to preach the gospel in the North, was imprisoned there in the late 1940s for alleged spying for South Korea; he disputed the charge.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he fled to South Korea. After divorcing his first wife, he married Hak Ja Han Moon in 1960. They have 10 surviving sons and daughters, according to the church.
In South Korea, Moon quickly drew young acolytes to his conservative, family-oriented value system and unusual interpretation of the Bible. He 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 building a relationship with North Korea in 1991, even meeting with the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, in the eastern North Korean port city of Hamhung. In his autobiography, Moon said he urged Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions, and that 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 pay its respects after Kim Jong Il died in December and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Un.
Moon sought and eventually 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.
In later years, the church adopted a lower profile in the United States and focused on building up its businesses. Moon lived for more than 30 years in the United States, the church said.
As he grew older, Moon also handed over day-to-day control of his empire to his children. His 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 in South Korea and abroad.
In 2009, Moon married 45,000 people in simultaneous ceremonies worldwide in his first large-scale mass wedding in years, the church said. Some were newlyweds and others reaffirmed past vows. He married an additional 7,000 couples in South Korea in February 2010. The ceremonies attracted media coverage but little of the controversy that dogged the church in earlier decades.
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."
AP writer Sam Kim contributed to this story from Seoul.