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Controversial church founder dies at 92

GAPYEONG, South Korea -- The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, best known for conducting mass weddings involving thousands of couples, was a self-proclaimed messiah, but he was at least as good at attracting dollars as he was at drawing converts.

His Unification Church claims 3 million followers, though ex-members and critics put the number at no more than 100,000. There is no questioning the vastness of the business empire Moon created through his church: ventures in several countries from hospitals and newspapers to cars and sushi, and even professional sports teams and a ballet troupe.

Moon died Monday at a church-owned hospital near his home in Gapyeong County, northeast of Seoul, two weeks after being hospitalized with pneumonia, Unification Church spokesman Ahn Ho-yeul told The Associated Press. Moon's wife and children were at his side, Ahn said. He was 92.

Flags flew at half-staff Monday at a Unification Church in Seoul. Followers trickled into the building, some wiping away tears. .

There was no official comment from either North or South Korea on Moon's death.

Moon's body was transferred to the church's gargantuan white palace on Mount Cheonseong overlooking the lakes and wooded forests of Gapyeong County. His funeral will take place Sept. 15 after a 13-day mourning period.

Moon, who was born in a rural part of what is now North Korea, founded his Bible-based religion in Seoul in 1954, a year after the end of the Korean War. He cultivated friends among political leaders in the U.S. and — though he was an ardent anti-communist — in North Korea, though he served time in prison in both countries.

He gained notoriety by marrying off thousands of followers in mass wedding ceremonies, usually not long after being arranged to marry by Moon himself. Moon often paired up strangers hailing from different countries as part of his vision of a multicultural, family-oriented religious world.

The church has faced considerable controversy over the years, and has been accused of using devious recruitment tactics and duping followers out of money. Parents of young followers in the U.S. and elsewhere expressed worries that their children were brainwashed into joining.

The church also quietly amassed lucrative business ventures over the years, including the Washington Times newspaper; the New Yorker Hotel, a midtown Manhattan Art Deco landmark; and a seafood distribution firm that supplies sushi to Japanese restaurants across the U.S.

In South Korea, it acquired a ski resort, professional soccer teams, schools, hospitals and other businesses. It also operates the Potonggang Hotel in Pyongyang, jointly operates the North Korean automaker and has a huge “peace” institute in the North Korean capital.

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In this Oct. 14, 2009 file photo, couples from around the world participate in a mass wedding ceremony arranged by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church at Sun Moon University in Asan, south of Seoul. Moon, the self-proclaimed messiah who founded the Unification Church, has died at age 92, church officials said Monday, Sept. 3. (AP)

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