Mourners gather for Moon funeral in S. Korea

Posted at 09/15/12 8:55 AM

GAPYEONG, South Korea - Tens of thousands of mourners were expected to turn out Saturday for the elaborate funeral in South Korea of their "messiah" and controversial Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon.

Moon, who died of complications from pneumonia on September 3 aged 92, was to be buried on a hillside overlooking his church's sprawling headquarters complex in Gapyeong, 60 kilometres (35 miles) east of Seoul.

Church officials said around 35,000 mourners would attend, including as many as 15,000 overseas members of the church best known for its mass weddings and multi-billion-dollar business empire.

The main ceremony will begin at 10:00 am (0100 GMT) in a large covered stadium, where wreaths of flowers have been laid out along walls leading to a stage dominated by a huge portrait of Moon.

Over the past 10 days, thousands of tearful followers have filed into the stadium to pay their last respects, bowing before his portrait, praying and leaving roses and lilies -- Moon's favourite flowers -- at the makeshift altar.

Since his death, Moon's body has been laid out in a glass-topped coffin in one room of a vast White House-modelled mansion in a separate part of the compound.

Only senior church officials and VIP guests have been allowed to view the body -- clothed in a heavily brocaded red and gold robe with a silver crown placed on Moon's head.

The funeral will be webcast live on the church website (http://sunghwa.tongilgyo.org) and shown on giant screens erected around the Gapyeong compound.

Many of those attending the funeral arrived days in advance, including Anton Gromov, 41, from the United States who joined the church in 1995.

"It's very sad. He was like a father for me. But for him, I would not have been the way I am now," Gromov told AFP.

"He left us too early but we cannot change what God has prepared for us. This is a new beginning, not an end," he said.

Moon, a self-styled messiah, was a deeply divisive figure whose shadowy business dealings saw him jailed in the United States.

His church, which he founded in 1954 and built into a global religious movement, was famed for organising mass weddings that married thousands -- sometimes tens of thousands -- of identically-clad couples in mass ceremonies.

The church claimed its members -- mocked as "Moonies" by the media -- totalled three million at the time of his death, although experts say numbers had fallen sharply from their peak in the 1980s.

It controls a business empire encompassing construction, food, education, the media -- including the Washington Times newspaper and United Press International news agency -- and even a professional football club.

Among the tributes that poured in after Moon's death was a personal message of condolence from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

Although a staunch anti-communist, Moon began building a relationship with North Korea in the 1990s. In 1991 he visited Pyongyang and met with then-leader Kim Il-Sung for talks that touched on reunification of the divided peninsula.

A church-affiliated firm, Pyeonghwa (Peace) Motors, established a joint car-making business in North Korea in 1999.

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