Brides in white gowns and Japanese kimonos joined grooms in black suits and red ties Wednesday for the Unification Church's biggest mass wedding in a decade - a spectacle church officials say will involve 40,000 people in cities around the world.
The "blessing ceremony" is the church's largest since 1999, and may well be the last on such a grand scale officiated by the 89-year-old Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial founder of the Unification Church.
There was no sign of Moon as the festivities got under way at the university he founded in Asan, south of Seoul. He was expected to offer the blessings and vows to 21,000 people in South Korea and the estimated 20,000 taking part by video in simultaneous ceremonies from Sweden to Brazil.
The mass wedding comes as Moon is moving to hand day-to-day leadership over to his children, and on Wednesday the Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, the 30-year-old son tapped to take over religious leadership, led the ceremony at the flower-festooned altar.
His sons insist their father remains in charge of the church and in good health. Officials say the massive global ceremony is meant to mark two key anniversaries in the leader's life: his 90th birthday and his 50th wedding anniversary.
Row after row of brides wearing veils and grooms in white gloves - hailing from South Korea, the U.S., Japan and Europe - joined married couples renewing their vows in bowing their heads in prayer Wednesday. Earlier, they posed for photos, sang and practiced shouting "Hurrah!" as the wedding rehearsal got under way.
Critics who accuse the church of engaging in cultlike practices say the mass weddings prove it brainwashes its followers. Followers routinely let Moon pick their spouses on the belief that he has divine insight. In the past, many met their mates for the first time at the mass weddings.
Moon, a self-proclaimed Messiah who says he was 15 when Jesus Christ called upon him to carry out his unfinished work, has courted controversy and criticism since founding the Unification Church in Seoul in 1954.
He held his first mass wedding in the early 1960s, arranging the marriages of 24 couples himself and renewing the vows of 12 married
Over the next two decades, the weddings grew in scale and began to involve followers from Japan, Europe, Africa, Latin America, the U.S. and elsewhere. A 1982 mass wedding at Madison Square Garden in
New York, the first held outside South Korea, drew tens of thousands of participants - and protesters.
"My wish is to completely tear down barriers and to create a world in which everyone becomes one," Moon said in his recent autobiography. He says the blessing ceremonies pairing followers from different backgrounds are part of his vision of building a multicultural religious world.