Thousands of Unification Church members were married in a mass wedding in South Korea on Wednesday – only the second such event since the death of their “messiah” and controversial church founder Sun Myung Moon.
Some 2,500 identically-dressed couples – many of mixed nationality who had met just days before – took part in the ceremony at the church’s global headquarters in Gapyeong, east of the capital Seoul.
Mass weddings, some held in giant sports stadia with tens of thousands of couples, have long been a signature feature of the church and one that “Moonie” critics have pointed to as evidence of cult underpinnings.
Moon died in September 2012, aged 92, of complications from pneumonia, and his 71-year-old widow Hak Ja Han presided over Wednesday’s ceremony.
The church’s mass weddings began in the early 1960s. At first, they involved just a few dozen couples but the numbers mushroomed over the years.
In 1997, 30,000 couples tied the knot in Washington, and two years later around 21,000 filled the Olympic Stadium in Seoul.
Nearly all were personally matched by Moon, who taught that romantic love led to sexual promiscuity, mismatched couples and dysfunctional societies.
Many were married just hours after meeting for the first time, and Moon’s preference for cross-cultural, international marriages meant that they often shared no common language.
In recent years, matchmaking responsibilities have shifted towards parents, but many of the church members married on Wednesday had chosen to be paired off a few days before at an “engagement ceremony” presided over by Moon’s widow.
Korean groom Kim Jeong-rae admitted that communication with his English-speaking Filipina bride was, for the moment at least, quite limited.
“I can only speak English a little,” Kim said. “I can understand it, but I can’t speak well. I listen to her and express myself bit by bit.”
Italian Carmen Ritizzi, standing with her new German groom, said friends back home had been unfazed by her decision to marry in the church’s tradition.
“I have to say they were really open about it,” she said.
“So yeah, maybe we think that people might react like: ‘Oh God why are you doing this?’ But in the end, people react really openly and friendly,” she added.
Those who choose to be matched by the church must confirm under oath that they are virgins, and after their wedding the couple must refrain from sexual relations for a minimum of 40 days.
Revered by his followers but denounced by critics as a charlatan who brainwashed church members, Moon was a deeply divisive figure.
His shadowy business dealings saw him jailed in the United States.
The teachings of the Unification Church are based on the Bible but with new interpretations, and Moon saw his role as completing the unfulfilled mission of Jesus to restore humanity to a state of “sinless” purity.
While it claims a worldwide following of three million, experts suggest the core membership is far smaller.