ASAN, South Korea – Nearly a half-century after the Rev. Sun Myung Moon performed his first mass wedding, the 89-year-old leader of the Unification Church is getting ready to marry off tens of thousands of people in spectacles from the United States to South Korea.
The church says Moon will wed or reaffirm the marriages of more than 40,000 people. More than 20,000 will participate Wednesday at Sun Moon University in Asan, south of Seoul, in a ceremony that will be broadcast live at similar events worldwide.
One of the largest "blessing ceremonies" will take place at the Unification Church-owned New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan on Tuesday night, church officials said.
The mass weddings — the church's largest in a decade — come as Moon is moving to hand day-to-day leadership over to three of his 11 children.
The three sons insist their father remains in charge and in good health. Church officials say the massive global ceremony is meant to mark two key anniversaries in the leader's life: his 90th birthday and his 50th wedding anniversary.
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 and began to involve followers from Japan, Europe, Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere. Several were held at Madison Square Garden in New York, with protesters shouting outside.
"My wish is to completely tear down barriers and to create a world in which everyone becomes one," Moon said in his recent autobiography. He says the blessing ceremonies pairing followers from different backgrounds are part of his vision of building a multicultural religious world.
In recent years, the weddings have been smaller in scale. Still, church officials said this time followers in nearly every U.S. state would take part.
Critics who accuse the church of engaging in cultlike practices say the mass weddings prove it brainwashes its followers. In the past, followers let Moon pick their spouses on the belief that he has divine insight. Many met their mates for the first time at the mass weddings.
These days, prospective partners meet days or weeks before their wedding, church officials say, and couples are matched after careful scrutiny of their photographs, biographies and other personal data.
Participants can also reject Moon's choice of their spouses — but few do, church officials said.
"There is no other faster way than a cross-cultural wedding to reach the ideal of a peaceful world," Moon wrote in "As a Peace-loving Global Citizen." "We must marry people from countries we consider enemies to achieve our goal of a peaceful world as quickly as possible."
The Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, the American-born, Harvard-educated son tapped to head the church's religious affairs, defended his father's vision.
The native New Yorker allowed his father to arrange his own marriage to a South Korean; he was 17 at the time. The father later married three of his grandchildren to followers from Japan, Korea's former colonizer.
"The philosophy behind my father's blessing is that the pain and grief between enemies can only be overcome by love," Moon Hyung-jin told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "If people from Korea and Japan marry with this broad mindset, their children won't see their parents' countries as enemies and instead will come to love both countries."