By HYUNG-JIN KIM
GAPYEONG, South Korea (AP) - 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.
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