Hyung Jin Moon: Meet the new Moonie messiah

If you thought the Unification Church had vanished, think again. He tells Jerome Taylor about his mission from God

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Following in a famous parent's footsteps is never easy. But imagine if your father claimed to be a Messianic figure commanded by Jesus to found a new religion that could unite the entire world. How do you follow on from that?

Such is the task facing Hyung Jin Moon, a 32-year-old Harvard theology graduate who also happens to be the youngest son and likely successor of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the man behind one of the 20th century's most controversial new religions.

For the past six decades, Reverend Moon has overseen the turbulent expansion of the Unification Church, a faith that grew out of a single congregation in Korea to become a global movement saturated in controversy and accusations of brainwashing.

During its zenith in the 1970s the church – better known by its popular nickname the Moonies – had hundreds of thousands of followers across Korea, Japan, North America and Europe and the fiercely anti-communist Reverend Moon enjoyed enormous popularity among sections of the American right.

As the church's popularity grew so did the number of its detractors, with critics and former members accusing Moon of brainwashing young recruits, fleecing his flock to line his own pockets, and making a mockery of the institution of marriage.

In recent years the church has bowed out of the limelight, but that hasn't stopped the 91-year-old continuing to preach his message that he is the second coming of Christ and that he and his wife, Hak Ja Han, are the "True Parents", who have come to redeem the world by creating a global government under their leadership.

This week the Unification Church leader flew into Britain with his son as part of a three-week tour of Europe. It is only the second trip that the preacher has made to the UK since a Home Office ban on his entry was lifted in 2005.

At the church's headquarters off Lancaster Gate in London there is a flurry of activity as congregants prepare for the new arrivals. The Reverend Moon is staying at a nearby hotel, preparing for a speech and Mrs Moon is visiting the House of Commons at the invitation of David Anderson MP and Labour peer Lord King. Hyung Jin enters the building, dressed in traditional Korean garments, accompanied by his wife Yeon Ah who, like many Unificationists, were hand-picked to marry each other by Reverend Moon in one of his mass ceremonies. "Officially I'm international president but really I'm just an assistant to Father and Mother Moon," he explains diplomatically in American-accented English.

Until recently, most observers believed that Moon's third son, who has a somewhat confusingly near-identical name Hyun-Jin, was being groomed to take over the family firm. Known as Preston Moon, he is a prominent figure to Unificationists, but has been noticeably absent from many of the official functions in Korea. In fact, it emerged that a company of which he is chairman is taking legal action in the States against the Unification Church's Korea-based Mission Foundation in which his mother, in the words of a spokesman, "holds a position". The case focuses on accusations that $22.3m was wired from one of his companies to the Foundation without permission".

"True Parents are the restored Adam and Eve but we can't expect them to have a perfect family because that's not their mission," Hyung Jin says. "Their mission is to take on the burden of all the pains of the world, like Christ. We pray for that situation; it's a painful situation but we always have hope. They have been through bigger storms."

Storms follow the Moons. In the 1980s, Reverend Moon was jailed for 18 months in the US for fraudulent tax claims. The British wing of the Unification Church lost a long-running libel battle with the Daily Mail over accusations that members had been forcibly cut off from families.

More recently there have been legal battles and investigations in Brazil and Japan where followers were arrested for allegedly selling expensive personal seals, telling people they would suffer if they did not buy them. The Unification Church says evangelical Christian groups in Japan have kidnapped thousands of their supporters to stop them converting.

Many observers now believe Hyung Jin is the son that Moon needs to steer the Unification Church out of its ongoing PR problems. "He's the acceptable face of the Moonies," says one seasoned observer. "And that has infuriated the eldest son."

Hyung Jin dismisses his father's critics. "Any new religious movement is always misunderstood," he says. "There is always a little to a lot of opposition. It's actually quite expected to not be mainstream at the very beginning. I don't see it as something strange."

The Unification Church: A short history

* According to the Unification Church's own literature, Sun Myung Moon was praying on a hill at the age of 15 when he was visited by Christ and told to finish the work of creating a kingdom of God on earth.

* The church's core teachings are found within Divine Principles, a book published by Moon in the 1960s. Moon claims to be the second coming of Christ and that he and his wife are the "True Parents" – a sinless couple who will create a single government and religion for the entire world.

* During the 1970s, when the church was at its peak, Unificationists claim to have had millions of followers. Critics put the figure somewhere between 250,000 and one million.

* Ongoing scandals, such as Reverend Moon's conviction for tax fraud in the 1980s, has led to a smaller flock. According to Hyung Jin Moon, the church boasts 300,000 adherants across Korea but only 27,000 regularly attend church.

* Nonetheless the church has vast business interests in Korea, the United States and Latin America. Controversially the church owns The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper with strong links to the Republican far right.

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