ASAN, South Korea – It was his wedding day, but Choi In-seok admitted to a twinge of nervousness Wednesday about spending the rest of his life with the woman hand-picked for him by the Unification Church.
The 34-year-old English teacher was among 45,000 people worldwide who took part in a mass wedding that was the largest in a decade — and quite possibly the last for the church's controversial founder, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Moon, who turns 90 in January, has turned day-to-day leadership of the Unification Church over to three sons and a daughter. But the self-proclaimed "Messiah" returned to the altar Wednesday to bless tens of thousands of newlyweds in a special ceremony that also honored his 50th wedding anniversary.
In Moon's church, marriage and family are core to spirituality. Since the early years of his religious leadership, he has paired off couples who believe he is blessed with divine insight.
As the mass weddings grew in scale, so did the theatricality, with Moon and wife Han Hak-ja donning high priest-style white gowns and towering caps and marrying off tens of thousands in stadiums and arenas as protesters shouted outside.
Moon calls his method of pairing followers from different nations part of a plan to encourage world peace.
"My wish is to completely tear down barriers and to create a world in which everyone becomes one," he wrote in his recent autobiography.
Critics call it proof he brainwashes adherents into turning their lives, and possibly their livelihoods, over to the church.
In recent years, the blessing ceremonies have been smaller. In the past, many couples met for the first time on their wedding day; these days, they often meet several times in advance.
On Wednesday, gone were the robes and the theatrics. Moon wore a simple black suit with a rose pinned to his lapel as he sprinkled holy water and read out the wedding vows before leading the newlyweds in a loud "Hurrah!"
Many of the brides at Asan wore white wedding dresses and veils, or Japanese kimono or Korean hanbok, while men were clad in black suits and red ties with white scarves wrapped around their necks. About a quarter were new couples in unions arranged by the church; the rest were renewing their wedding vows.
Some 20,000 more around the globe, from Norway to Brazil, gathered in churches and living rooms to join the festivities by watching a live webcast.
Marriage, Fumi Oliver said in Washington, "is the best way to make peace." A native of Japan, she married an American, the Rev. Zagery Oliver, 12 years ago. "International, intercultural, interracial marriage is the best way to make peace," she said.
Laudicea Corina de Padua called her wedding in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a dream come true.
"Taking part in a mass wedding only adds to the profoundness — I barely have the words to describe what I feel," said the 40-year-old, dressed in a shimmering wedding gown.
Brazilian church leaders hand-picked 38-year-old metalworker Manoel Marcelino dos Santos as her husband.
"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."
In South Korea, Tunl Badrakh, a 23-year-old Mongolian student, cradled a portrait of her 21-year-old husband from Mongolia, who wasn't able to make it to South Korea. She said he took part in the ceremony via Internet.
And not everyone was happy Wednesday.
One bride in South Korea sat forlornly in a lawn chair with a black jacket thrown over her white wedding dress, tears streaming down her face.
"I came here against my will," she said. "I'm too young to get married. I don't understand why I have to do something like this." She refused to give her name or age, saying only that she was a student.
Choi In-seok, the English teacher, tied the knot Wednesday with kindergarten teacher Kim Shin-ah.
"I'm so happy," he said. "Today's wedding doesn't only mean our happiness but also our entire families' happiness."
Kim, 31, broke into a smile as she described her new husband as "reliable."
Both come from devout Unification Church families in South Korea — a background that he says wasn't easy growing up. He said he fought friends who called him a "cult member" during the height of the controversy over the church's practices.
"People say things are better now but there's still some prejudice against us," he said.
Conscious of the stigma attached to being a Unificationist, he didn't invite any friends to Wednesday's ceremony and instead plans to hold an "ordinary" wedding in a few months' time.
He also confessed to lingering worries about marrying a woman chosen for him by his parents and the church. He tried to shake those fears, saying that receiving the Moons' blessings will ensure him "a good life."
But when his wife walked away, he admitted: "Frankly speaking, I'm a little bit concerned."