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Rev. Moon Mass Wedding Draws 40,000

From South Korea to South America, the brides wore white for the Unification Church's largest mass wedding in a decade, with some 40,000 people participating in dozens of cities around the world.

The "blessing ceremony" was the church's largest since 1999, and may well be the last on such a grand scale officiated by the 89-year-old Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial founder of the Unification Church.

More than twenty-thousand people gathered at Moon's Sun Moon University campus in Asan, south of Seoul, for the main event Wednesday morning while some 20,000 more joined simultaneous ceremonies Tuesday night in the U.S., Brazil, Venezuela and elsewhere.

Some were new couples who met for the first time in recent months in unions arranged by the church; others were married couples renewing their vows. The brides wore veils and wedding dresses, or their national dress; the men wore black suits with red ties, with white scarves wrapped around their necks.

The mass wedding comes as Moon moves to hand day-to-day leadership over to his children, though the Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, the 30-year-old tapped to take over religious affairs, insists his father remains in charge of the church and in good health.

The massive global ceremony is meant to mark two key anniversaries in the leader's life: his 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his marriage to Han Hak-ja, church officials said.

Row after row of brides in veils and grooms in white gloves - hailing from South Korea, the U.S., Japan, Europe and elsewhere - posed for photos, sang and practiced shouting "Hurrah!" at a pre-ceremony wedding rehearsal.

"I'm a little bit nervous," admitted Rie Furuta. She and her groom, Tadakuni Sano, both 25-year-olds from Japan, had met only three times since their marriage was arranged in March.

During the ceremony, Moon sprinkled holy water toward the crowd 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 as he clasped his wife's hands, sobbing at times. Many in the crowd shed tears as well.

In the past, the Moons wore elaborate, high priest-style white gowns and headpieces for the blessing ceremonies.

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 as it seeks to dodge the controversy that dogged it in past decades.

"I think my wife is the most beautiful bride here," said Lee Dong-seok, a 32-year-old computer programmer from South Korea who tied 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."

Critics who accuse the church of engaging in cultlike practices say the mass weddings prove it brainwashes its followers. In the past, Moon routinely paired off couples, many of whom met for the first time at their wedding.

These days, even arranged couples have the chance to meet at least a few months before the ceremony, church officials said. But none are expected to skip off to a honeymoon; couples are required to observe a 40-day waiting period before they cohabitate to prepare for the marriage spiritually.

Many said they would celebrate with lunch afterward, and a select group was invited to a luncheon with Moon on Thursday at the church's waterside complex.

Moon, a self-proclaimed Messiah who says he was 15 when 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 himself and renewing the vows of 12 married couples.

Over the next two decades, the weddings grew in scale; the first held outside South Korea was at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1982. That one drew tens of thousands of participants - and protesters.

In many cases, Moon paired off many couples from different countries as part of his aim of creating 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 New York, 22-year-old Krystof Heller said his parents married in a 1982 mass wedding. He has known his new wife, 23-year-old Maria Lee of South Korea, for about four months.

"It's something you grow up with. It something you anticipate through your whole life," he said. "It's not just about a mass wedding; there is the moral emphasis. The big crowd is just the perk."

In Washington D.C., children played in the back as churchgoers watched the ceremony on a large screen flanked by the flags of South Korea, Japan and the United States.

"This is the best way to make peace," said Fumi Oliver, a native of Japan who married an American, the Rev. Zagery Oliver, 12 years ago. "International, intercultural, interracial marriage is the best way to make peace."

Hundreds of brides and grooms gathered in churches in Australia, said Enrique Ledesma, Australian director of the church-affiliated Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

"It was very, very nice," Ledesma said. "It's a serene mood, but it's also a very joyful mood."

The ceremony in Honduras marks a new start for the movement in the Latin American nation, said Omar Valle, president of the Unification Church in Tegucigalpa. He said 25 couples will renew their vows.

"Through this ceremony, we join a large global family, all as brothers," he said.

In Brazil, Laudicea Corina de Padua called her wedding a dream come true.

"It's the realization of a dream I've had for so long. Taking part in a mass wedding only adds to the profoundness - I barely have the words to describe what I feel," the 40-year-old said in Sao Paulo.

Dressed in a shimmering white gown, she was among some 2,000 people in 40 Brazilian cities who took part in the ceremony via simultaneous broadcast. Her husband, Manoel Marcelino dos Santos, a 38-year-old metalworker, was chosen for her by national church leaders.

"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."

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