Wearing a crown of bullets and brandishing a gold AR-15 rifle, Hyung Jin ‘Sean’ Moon isn’t your average pastor.
But as the son of cult leader Sun Myung Moon – a self-appointed ‘Messiah’ who conducted mass weddings and built a sinister billion-dollar business empire – the 42-year-old has a lot to live up to.
This week, it was revealed the controversial American has bought a 130-acre property in Tennessee to use as a ‘training centre’ for a spin-off group of his dad’s Unification Church – also known as the ‘Moonies’.
The Rod of Iron Ministries, a MAGA-supporting religious sect, was set up by Moon following a bitter fallout with his mother over who was the rightful ‘heir’ to the Moonies empire.
“This is going to be a very, very important mission,” he declared after the purchase, VICE reported. “Many, many, many busloads of people are going to come to pray there and do ancestor liberation there.”
But just who are the Moonies – and what sparked the rise of Moon’s latest gun-toting conspiracy group?
Moonies leader married over 6,000 couples at once
Raised in what is now North Korea, Sun Myung Moon founded the Unification Church in 1954.
Pledging to unite all religions, the sect famously married off followers in mass weddings – with couples hand-picked by Moon.
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By the age of 40, the leader himself had wed Hak Ja Han, a 17-year-old disciple. The couple were dubbed the ‘True Parents of Mankind’.
Moonie newly-weds were forbidden to sleep together for 40 days to prove their marriage was on a higher plane.
They then had to consummate their marriage in a three-day ritual with the sexual positions stipulated by their leader.
Moon’s teachings spread to the West and proved popular with well-off youngsters. Church membership boomed on the back of world tours.
In 1988 he even entered the Guinness Book of Records when he married 6,516 identically dressed couples at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium.
Moon became one of the world’s richest and most powerful religious leaders – with a business empire that included the Washington Times.
“God is living in me and I am the incarnation of Himself,” he once said. “The whole world is in my hand and I will conquer and subjugate the world.”
An estimate in 2008 put his personal wealth at £625million. After moving to America, he lived in a swanky New York home, was ferried around in limos and holidayed on a private yacht.
He was so powerful that he even struck up relationships with US presidents like Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W Bush – while he also negotiated business deals with the former North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung.
Behind the glamorous facade, however, dark allegations were rearing their head.
Dark claims of brainwashing and beatings
Moonie “love-bombing” was a recruitment technique designed to make lonely people feel part of a loving community, to reject their families and to hand over their possessions.
It sparked outrage among parents. Some mounted law suits accusing Moon of brainwashing followers.
The Washington Post via Getty Images)
In the late 1970s, church leaders were accused of encouraging three parishioners to kill themselves after they strayed from the strict belief system.
Former members also claimed that at the church’s infamous spiritual retreat in Cheongpyeong, South Korea, followers were forced to hand over huge sums of cash and submit to beatings to “exorcise evil spirits”.
These treatments were supposed to address ‘spiritual issues’ including mental illness, infertility, homosexuality and serious illnesses like cancer.
“I remember the raw intensity of it,” ex-Moonie Elgen Strait told Vice, claiming the ‘workshops’ could last up to 40 days.
“You’re in this room, with a couple hundred people around you. People are leading songs and beating these drums – it creates an intense group environment. I feel like it whips people into an altered state of consciousness.”
A spokesman for the Unification Church denied Strait’s allegations, telling Vice: “All religious organisations have spiritual practices that have been mischaracterised at one point or another.
“The alleged accusations made in this story go against the founding principles of our organisation.”
Moon fought off charges of brainwashing, and in 1978 successfully appealed against a Home Office decision to refuse his application to extend a stay in Britain.
But in 1981 he was on the back foot when the High Court ordered the church to pay costs of £750,000 after it lost a libel action against the Daily Mail which alleged that it broke up families.
Three years later, his reputation was dented hugely when he was jailed for 18 months in the US for tax evasion.
The church never really recovered from the scandal and membership fell.
By the 1990s there were reports of poor South Koreans being shipped in to boost numbers at Moonie weddings.
Heirs at war as son launches far-right sect
The “perfect family” was floundering too, with allegations about Moon’s relations with other women and scandals involving the lavish lifestyles of his kids.
In 1998 his eldest son, Hyo Jin, was revealed as a violent cocaine addict – he died of a heart attack aged 45 – and in 1999 another son, Younjin Phillip Moon, killed himself aged 21.
Moon moved the church to a remote region in Brazil. As his flock dwindled, his actions became more bizarre.
Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock)
In 2004 he told an audience in Washington that emperors, kings and presidents – including Hitler and Stalin – had “declared to all heaven and earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s saviour, messiah, returning Lord and true parent”.
When he died in 2012 aged 92, he was survived by 11 children – including his youngest son, Rev Hyung Jin Moon.
Since then, the younger Moon has been locked in a bitter battle with mum Hak Ja Han, who has claimed control of the Unification Church.
At its height the church claimed to have around seven million members around the world – nowadays the figure is at most two million and disputed by non-believers.
In 2017, Moon founded the Rod of Iron Ministries, a far-right spin off of the church that seemingly attracts members by incorporating high-powered AR-15s rifles into its belief system.
More recently, the sect has seized attention by aligning itself with Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ movement, as well as rebooting the mass weddings popularised by the Moonies.
The Unification Church, however, has distanced itself from Moon as the rift continues to deepen.
A spokesperson told VICE: “Cheongpyeong can be likened to the Vatican; it is a place where members go to study, pray, and seek spiritual guidance.
“It can never be replicated by another organization because it is not founded nor consecrated by Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon.”
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