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Feuds a concern as children inherit Moon's church empire

GAPYEONG, South Korea -- Unification Church patriarch Sun Myung Moon leaves behind children who have been groomed to lead a religious movement famous for its mass weddings and business interests — if family feuds don't bring down the empire.

Moon, the charismatic and controversial founder of the church, died Monday at age 92 at a church-owned hospital near his home in Gapyeong County, northeast of Seoul, two weeks after being hospitalized with pneumonia, church officials said.

Flags flew at half-staff at a Unification Church in Seoul as followers trickled in, some wiping away tears, some wondering what would happen to a movement defined for decades by the man who founded it in 1954 and proclaimed himself a messiah.

The Rev. Moon and wife Hak Ja-han have 10 surviving children, and, in recent years, the aging Moon had been handing them power over the church's religious, charitable and business entities.

There have been reports of family rifts. One son sued his mother's missionary group in 2011, demanding the return of more than US$22 million he claimed was sent without his consent from his company to her group. A court ruled that the money was a loan but ordered it returned, the church said.

The son, known as Preston, is still in charge of a church organization in the United States, but church officials said they have asked him to leave the job.

Moon's death could expose further rifts within the church, said Kim Heung-soo, who teaches the history of Christianity at Mokwon University in the central city of Daejeon.

“There is a high possibility that internal discord will deepen,” Kim said.

The church has amassed dozens of businesses in the United States, South Korea and even North Korea, including hotels, a ski resort, sports teams, schools, universities and hospitals.

One expert said the church's business prospects appear brighter than its religious future. Tark Ji-il, a professor of religion at Busan Presbyterian University, described the church not as a religious organization but as a corporation made up of people with similar religious beliefs.

The church won't give details about how much its businesses are worth, other than to describe them as part of a “multibillion-dollar” empire.

Many new religious movements collapse after their founders die, but Tark said the Unification Church would likely survive. Its success as a religious entity, however, will depend on how smoothly it resolves any family feuds and how well Moon's offspring rise to fill their father's charismatic role, he said.

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