In the early Eighties an older man I had met in a pub offered me a trip round the world, paid for by the Moonies. "Go on," said my tempter, the writer Richard West. "You don't have any reputation to lose, whereas if I go, everyone will say I am biased. And it will be fun."
It was. Our junket was formally known as the "World Opinion-formers Fact- finding tour of South-east Asia", organised by members of the Rev Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. There were about 90 fact-finders, accompanied by 10 Moonie minders in suits and ties. Our mission was to check on the spread of world communism.
The Moonies were - and remain - intent on halting communism. Moon founded the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity in Korea in 1954. The first missionaries were sent out in the Fifties, but only after Moon moved to the US in the Seventies did the movement start to become visible in the West.
Moon's followers believe he is the Messiah who can lead the way to establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Their beliefs are set out in the Divine Principle, which contains interpretations of the Old and New Testaments with further revelations from Moon himself. Devotees believe God's victory over Satan requires the defeat of atheistic communism. To this end they have sponsored large numbers of conferences for journalists, theologians, academics, politicians and anyone else they think might contribute to establishing a God-centred world.
Our fact-finding itinerary was gruelling, and without obvious purpose. We started in Thailand, which was not under noticeable communist threat. After a couple of days of intensive fact-finding in the capital, we were piled into coaches for a day-trip to Cambodia. The Moonies were funding programmes to help refugees from the Khmer Rouge in camps along the Thai/Cambodian border. There we witnessed a strange ceremony under a grass roof in which our minders handed over a bag of basketballs, as humanitarian aid.
We flew on to Manila. It was the period between the assassination of Benino Aquino and the fall of President Marcos. The streets were full of confusion, excitement and armed men in uniform. The Moonies had laid on a full programme of sight-seeing in the countryside for the fact-finders lest we be distracted by this.
The Moonies were lobbying for Marcos, but not so as to exclude his opponents entirely. One evening there was a banquet, followed by a speech from the equivocal figure of Senator Salvador "Doy" Laurel. Later he was to side with the more sinister elements of the military against Mrs Cory Aquino's government, but in those confused times he was wearing a white hat, and was in some danger of assassination. A German fact-finder asked him in all seriousness whether he was not a communist stooge, and I fell into a fit of noisy hysterical laughter. The German offered to beat me up.
I had blasphemed against the idol of the tour: the danger of World Communism. During the tour I learnt a lot about World Communism and more about why South Koreans might find it a perfectly sensible demon to believe in. The Moonies think of themselves as a universalist religion: their official name is after all the Unification Church. But they cannot, I think, be understood outside a South Korean context. For one thing, South Korea is a land of tremendous religious enthusiasm. Much of this takes the form of pentecostal Christianity: Paul Yongghi Cho [sic], the Korean pastor of the largest church in the world, held a rally in Wembley Arena earlier this year at which people were barking, screaming, crying, and otherwise engaged in Rock'n'Roll with the Holy Spirit. No one described all that as brainwashing.
The other point about South Korea is that it is next to North Korea which, for the past 50 years, has been one of the vilest dictatorships on the planet. Sun Myung Moon is said to have made his fortune selling machine guns in the Korean War; one of the lessons to be drawn from this is that he was profiting from a fairly just war. South Korea is a US protectorate. It remains free and capitalistic because Americans were worried about communism. One can hardly blame South Koreans for encouraging this worry in their protectors.
When in South Korea, we were taken to see the Sun Myung Moon University; but we were also taken to the "Truce Village" in the de-militarised zone, where the hostility of war remained not so much frozen as poised in a sort of ballet: there was a room where the negotiators from the two sides could meet, though each must stay their own side of a line on the floor. Within that room, no weapons were allowed, so there were bodyguards trained in unarmed combat. Outside were soldiers with small arms; and then, an agreed distance away, was the artillery; then the planes and, lurking over the horizon, the nuclear weapons that could start the apocalypse.
It was theatrical, of course, but it was also genuinely frightening. One could understand why the notion of a Unification Church might seem appealing in a country so hideously divided. By now it was impossible to think of our Moonie guides as part of a conspiracy. Their abstinence, their integrity and their efficiency stood out more obviously from our behaviour with every passing day. Someone discovered that they would lend small sums to journalists who had underestimated the expenses of fact- finding and soon we were all in their debt. They made no attempt whatever to convert anyone to their faith.
No matter how absurd or repellent the beliefs of the Rev Sun Myung Moon may appear, they are hardly odder or more dangerous than those of the Rev Pat Robertson, and other millennarian fundamentalists. God knows what the estimated 700 Moonies in this country get from their faith. In fact, research has shown that more than 90 per cent of those who join the church grow out of it within two years. The ones I met seemed distant, sinister and even crew-cut. But they were hardly brainwashed robots. And I have an uneasy feeling that I still owe one of them $50.
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