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Sun Myung Moon, Unification Church head, dies

GAPYEONG, South Korea -- The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed messiah who turned his Unification Church into a worldwide religious movement and befriended North Korean leaders as well as U.S. presidents, has died, church officials said. He was 92.

Moon died Monday at a church-owned hospital near his home in Gapyeong, 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. Church officials planned to meet later Monday to discuss funeral arrangements.

Moon, born in a town that is now in North Korea, founded his religious movement in Seoul in 1954. He preached new interpretations of lessons from the Bible.

The church gained fame -- and notoriety -- in the 1970s and 1980s for holding mass weddings of thousands of followers, often from different countries, whom Moon matched up in a bid to build a multicultural religious world.

The church was accused of using devious recruitment tactics and duping followers out of money; parents of followers in the United States and elsewhere expressed worries that their children were brainwashed into joining. The church responded by saying that many other new religious movements faced similar accusations in their early stages.

In later years, the church adopted a lower profile and focused on building a business empire that included the Washington Times newspaper, the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, Bridgeport University in Connecticut, as well as a hotel and a fledgling automaker in North Korea. It acquired a ski resort, a professional soccer team and other businesses in South Korea, and a seafood distribution firm that supplies sushi to Japanese restaurants in the United States.

The Unification Church claims millions of members worldwide, though church defectors and other critics say the figure is no more than 100,000.

In 2009, the Unification Church said Moon married 45,000 people in simultaneous ceremonies worldwide in his first large-scale mass wedding in years. Some were newlyweds and others reaffirmed past vows.

Born in 1920, Moon said he was 16 when Jesus Christ called upon him to complete his unfinished work. While preaching the gospel in North Korea in the years after the country was divided into the communist-backed North and U.S.-allied South, Moon was imprisoned there in the late 1940s for allegedly spying for South Korea -- a charge Moon disputed.

He quickly drew young followers with his conservative, family-oriented value system and unusual interpretation of the Bible.

Moon served 13 months at a U.S. federal prison in 1984-1985 for tax evasion. The church says the U.S. government persecuted Moon because of his growing influence and popularity with young people in the United States, his home for more than 30 years.

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