The Big Question: What is the Unification Church, and do its practices have a future?

Why are we asking this now?

Because the world has just witnessed what may be one of the last mass global weddings organised by South Korea's Unification Church, the movement founded by the Rev Sun Myung Moon and which many outsiders consequently refer to as the "Moonies", though the movement itself objects to this. In the largest event of its kind in a decade, more than 20,000 people gathered at Sun Moon University campus in Asan, south of Seoul, while another 20,000 joined simultaneous ceremonies from around the world.

What kind of a ceremony was it?

The brides either wore white, or Korean hanbok, or Japanese kimonos, while the grooms looked handsome in their tuxes, sometimes with red ties, with white scarves wrapped around their necks. The fact that they were sharing their big day with so many other people meant the individual experience was missing to a certain extent, but that's not the point when it comes to a nuptials organised by the Unification Church.

For half the couples, the ceremony was a first: the first time they had been married. And for the other half, it was a chance to reaffirm vows they had taken years ago, many in earlier mass weddings. The date of 14 October was auspicious because it was on that date in 1982 that the first mass "blessing" took place, when the Rev Moon joined 6,000 couples in Korea in marriage.

Why might such ceremonies not be repeated?

Because the Rev Moon is now 89, and even though he says he plans to hand over the day-to-day leadership of the movement to his three sons and a daughter, there is an inevitable question over what will become of it after he is gone. Meanwhile one of his sons, Hyung-jin Moon, who is tipped to take over religious affairs, insists that his father is healthy and remains in charge, although it's been a while since one of these events – regular occurrences during the 1980s and 1990s – have taken place.

So what exactly is this movement?

These days, the Unification Church, is a powerful business empire, providing income for the church and Rev Moon's large extended family.

Originally the movement was called the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, and then in the 1990s it became the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

The Unification Church is one of the most controversial religious movements of the past century. Founded in Seoul in the 1950s by the Rev Moon, Unificationism has attracted hundreds of thousands of members worldwide.

What's controversial about it?

The Unification Church has been widely viewed as a movement that asks a lot of its adherents. Much attention has focussed on the way that group members hand over the choice of a future life partner to Rev Moon, a self-proclaimed Messiah who believes that Jesus Christ has called upon him to carry out his unfinished work. However, the Rev Moon's son, who appears to be trying to modernise the organisation, says that choosing partners is under review.

How does choosing people's partners for them work?

For most of the weddings, the Rev Moon has personally chosen partners, sifting through photographs. But on this occasion he counted on introductions by parents and family members. Sometimes he meets the individual marriage partners and allocates brides and grooms himself.

For the Rev Moon this kind of event is part of a grand plan. His method of pairing followers from different nations is 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," the Rev Moon wrote in his autobiography.

What's the extent of the movement's business interests?

In South Korea, the Unification Church is a "chaebol" – or "conglomerate" – known as the Tongil group. Tongil, which means unification in Korean, operates just like the other chaebol, such as the industrial groups Hyundai or Samsung. The church's global interests include everything from fishing to ranching to the manufacture of arms and the operation of North Korea's only motor-vehicle plant, which assembles small sedans with parts made by Fiat. The church also owns newspapers, including the Washington Times and daily titles in Japan and Korea.

Who joins the Unification Church?

One of the surprise appearances at the mass wedding was that of Park Geun-ryeung, the younger daughter of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who affirmed her marriage vows to Shin Dong-uk, a professor of cultural studies at Baekseok College. Ms Shin told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper: "Although we did not convert to the Unification Church, when the idea was proposed by the church, we agreed because we wanted to get a blessing from the Rev. Moon Sun-myung, a global religious leader." There has been speculation that Mr Shin, who is 14 years his wife's junior, only married Ms Park for her political connections. Nonsense, he said. "I'm aware that many people suspect that I'm using this marriage to fulfill my political ambitions," he said. "But although there were difficulties, we are living modestly and happily and rely on each other."

What next for the Unification Church?

The mass wedding was partially about organising the succession issue for this most controversial of churches. Hyung-jin Moon is very young to be taking over, but his credentials are impressive. He studied theology at Harvard University.

For the couples who got married this week, the future involves a wait. Unification Church newlyweds are told to postpone their wedding night for 40 days after the ceremony, as an offering to God.

Can the Unification Church continue to thrive?

Yes...

* During times of recession, people take refuge in easily accessible religious beliefs

* The movement is making itself as accessible as possible to the younger generation

* Parents like the mass weddings the movement goes in for because it saves on reception bills

No...

* Your big day is not supposed to be celebrated with thousands of other couples

* Residual doubts about the Church linger, and attracting new members is always a challenge

* You have to wait 40 days to consummate the wedding, with a person who is after all a stranger

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