Sibling rivalry preys on Unification Church following death of founder


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On the first floor of a whitewashed Georgian mansion house close to Hyde Park there is a room with thick brown curtains, two empty chairs and a large signed portrait in a golden frame of a smiling elderly Korean couple. The chairs represent Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Hak Ja Han.

For this is the headquarters of the British wing of the Unification Church – known to many by its unofficial nickname, "the Moonies". Yesterday the house was eerily quiet as followers came to terms with the fact that their founder had passed away in Korea after complications from pneumonia at the age of 92.

Over the next two weeks, many of Britain's estimated 1,200 Moonies will travel to Korea to see their leader's body lie in state in a palatial mansion. A funeral will then be held on 15 September in a stadium which can hold up to 30,000 people.

The Korean-born evangelist, who claimed Jesus came to him as a 15-year-old and told him to build a new theocracy on earth, leaves a vast business empire, a religious movement shrouded in controversy and a family of children at odds with each other.

In recent years, the church bowed out of the limelight. Reverend Moon reinvented himself as a self-appointed "international man of peace", setting up an array of think tanks and charitable foundations. And his business empire continued to grow.

For the new generation of Unification Church leaders there is a determination to leave the movement's troubled past behind. Simon Cooper, a British-born convert who is the pastor at the London headquarters in Lancaster Gate, spent much of yesterday fielding calls from media organisations and shuttling between television studios. "We need to engage with people and the media, show them that we're a different organisation to what they think," he said.

Mr Cooper came to the church as a student at Newcastle University. He went to see a talk by a Moonie and was converted. "It was something I wouldn't regard as a merely human emotion," he explains. "I took on this faith and it just developed."

Much of the reformists' hopes are being placed in Reverend Moon's anointed successor, Hyung Jin Moon. The 32-year-old Harvard-educated theologian is the founder's youngest son and, unlike many of his siblings, showed flair in the spiritual – rather than the profit-driven – side of the family business.

But he faces an internal challenge from an older brother – the somewhat confusingly named Hyun Jin Moon. He is primarily based in America and heads a sizeable chunk of the church's US assets. In recent years he fell out with his parents and runs a church within a church.

"The rest of the movement, the main body, will also carry on and the hope is that they will bury their differences," Mr Cooper said.