Mass wedding at 'Moonies' church in South Korea sees 4,000 couples tie the knot [Photo report]

Four thousand identically dressed couples from 64 countries exchanged wedding vows in South Korea on Thursday 7 September during a mass wedding ceremony. They were married by the controversial Unification Church, whose followers are commonly known as 'Moonies' after their late founder and 'Messiah' the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

A groom naps as couples attend a mass wedding ceremonyKim Hong-Ji/Reuters

The 'cosmic blessing ceremony' was held to mark the fifth anniversary of Moon's death (or, as the church put it, "the fifth Anniversary of the Ascension of Sun Myung Moon, the True Parent of Heaven, Earth and Humankind".

Couples attend the mass wedding ceremony of the Unification Church at Cheongshim Peace World CentreKim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Relatives watch the mass wedding ceremony held by the Unification ChurchEd Jones/AFP
Confetti falls on the newlywedsEd Jones/AFP
A couple hold hands during the 'cosmic blessing ceremony' in GapyeongEd Jones/AFP
Thousands of couples attend a mass wedding held by the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, also known as the Unification Church or 'Moonie' ChurchChung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Moon's widow Hak Ja Han Moon officiated at the mass wedding ceremony, which was witnessed by about 30,000 church followers and guests gathered at the church's Cheongshim Peace World Centre, a vast indoor arena in Gapyeong, about 75 km (50 miles) northeast of Seoul.

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She sprinkled "holy water" over a group of couples called onto the stage and declared them bound in wedlock. The ceremony also allowed existing couples to renew their wedding vows. A further 20,000 couples worldwide participated in the ceremony via the Internet, the Unification Church said.

Newlywed couples bow to Han Hak-ja, widow of Evangelist Reverend Moon Sun-myungKim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Unification Church leader Hak Ja-Han officiates during the 'cosmic blessing ceremony'Ed Jones/AFP
A giant image of Unification Church leader Hak Ja-Han is displayed during the mass wedding ceremonyEd Jones/AFP

The church has come under fire for its mass weddings because couples are matched by the church with future spouses whom some of them have just met before the ceremony, and in many cases, do not speak the same language. Moon preferred brides and grooms from different racial backgrounds as he believed in the creation of a multicultural religious world.

Perhaps surprisingly, these weddings have a far higher success rate than traditional love marriages. Just 17% of the 2,075 couples matched by Moon in 1982 for a ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York had divorced by 1998, according to a study.

Couples arrive to take part in a mass wedding ceremonyEd Jones/AFP
Grooms interact with their brides-to-be before the mass wedding ceremony at Cheongshim Peace World CentreKim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Bride Vanessa Schenkermayr sits for a makeup artist at a hotel before taking part in a mass wedding ceremonyEd Jones/AFP
Bride and groom Edvard and Vanessa Schenkermayr pose for a wedding photographer at a hotel before taking part in the blessing ceremonyEd Jones/AFP
Couples pose for photographs before a mass wedding ceremony of the Unification Church at Cheongshim Peace World CentreKim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Relatives take photographs of a couple before a mass wedding ceremonyKim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Couples pose for photos at a hotel before taking part in the mass wedding ceremonyEd Jones/AFP
The finishing touches are given to brides' makeupEd Jones/AFP
A bride wipes her eyes prior to the mass wedding ceremonyEd Jones/AFP
Couples pose for selfies prior to a mass wedding ceremonyEd Jones/AFP
A couple pose for selfies prior to a mass wedding ceremonyEd Jones/AFP
A couple wait for their special moment at the mass wedding ceremonyChung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
A groom and brides wait for their partners in front of a toilet before the mass wedding ceremonyKim Hong-Ji/Reuters
The mass wedding was attended by couples from all over the worldChung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
A bride sleeps before the mass wedding ceremony at Cheongshim Peace World CentreChung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
A bride looks emotional as she attends the mass wedding ceremonyEd Jones/AFP
Newlywed couples applaud at the conclusion of the mass wedding ceremony at Cheongshim Peace World CentreKim Hong-Ji/Reuters

The church, officially called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, was founded in 1954 by Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

Born in Jeongju in what is now North Korea in 1920, Moon founded his religious movement in 1954. He said that when he was 15 Jesus appeared to him and demanded he set up God's kingdom on Earth. Moon, who declared that he and his wife were messiahs in 1992, died in 2012 at the age of 93.

A newlywed couple poses for photographs in front of a wedding photo of the late Reverend Moon Sun-myung and his wife Han Hak-jaKim Hong-Ji/Reuters
A bride poses for a photo before a giant image of the late reverend Sun Myung-Moon and his wife Hak Ja-HanEd Jones/AFP
A photo is displayed showing the late reverend Sun Myung-Moon and his wife Hak Ja-Han standing with late North Korean leader Kim Il-SungEd Jones/AFP

Moon was controversial figure and was once jailed in the United States for tax evasion. Critics over the years have called the organisation a cult, questioning its finances and how it indoctrinates followers, who are sometimes derogatorily known as "Moonies."

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