Couples from around the world participate in a mass wedding ceremony arranged by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church at Sun Moon University in Asan, south of Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday.

Couples from around the world participate in a mass wedding ceremony arranged by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church at Sun Moon University in Asan, south of Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday.

From South Korea to South America, the bride wore white for the Unification Church's largest mass wedding in a decade, with 40,000 people participating in dozens of cities around the world.

The "blessing ceremony" was 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.

More than 20,000 people gathered at Sun Moon University campus in Asan, south of Seoul, on Wednesday while 20,000 more joined simultaneous ceremonies in the U.S., Brazil, Australia and elsewhere.

Some were new couples in unions arranged by the church; others were renewing their wedding vows.

The brides wore wedding dresses or their national dress; the men wore black suits with red ties, with white scarves around their necks.

Moon planning succession

The mass wedding comes as Moon moves to hand day-to-day leadership over to three sons, though the Rev. Moon Hyung-jin, the 30-year-old tapped to take over religious affairs, insists his father is healthy and remains in charge.

The global ceremony is meant to mark key anniversaries in the leader's life: his 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his marriage to Han Hak-ja, church officials said.

Brides in veils and grooms in white gloves — hailing from South Korea, the U.S., Japan, Europe and elsewhere — posed for photos and practised shouting "Hurrah!" at the wedding rehearsal.

"I'm a little bit nervous," admitted Rie Furuta. She and groom Tadakuni Sano, both 25-year-olds from Japan, had met only three times since their marriage was arranged in March.

Church tones down controversial practices

In the past, the Moons wore elaborate, high priest-style white gowns and headpieces for the blessing ceremonies.

On Wednesday, Moon was dressed in a simple black suit, a rose pinned to his lapel; his wife wore a white blouse and skirt. Their austerity reflected the church's toned-down stance as it seeks to avoid the controversy of the past.

Critics say the weddings show the church engages in cultlike practices. In the past, Moon routinely paired off couples, with many first meeting at their mass wedding.

These days, even arranged couples meet beforehand, church officials said. But they're not expected to skip off to a honeymoon; couples are required to observe a 40-day waiting period before living together. Many said they would celebrate with lunch afterward, and a select group was invited to a luncheon with Moon on Thursday.

Moon, a self-proclaimed Messiah who says 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 and renewing the vows of 12 others.

Multicultural pairings

The weddings grew in scale; the first held outside South Korea was at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1982. That one drew tens of thousands of participants — and protesters.

Moon frequently paired off people from different countries as part of his aim to create a multicultural religious world.

"My wish is to completely tear down barriers and to create a world in which everyone becomes one," Moon said in his recent autobiography.

In New York, 22-year-old Krystof Heller, whose parents married in a 1982 mass wedding, has known new wife Maria Lee of South Korea for about four months.

"It's something you grow up with. It something you anticipate through your whole life," he said. "It's not just about a mass wedding; there is the moral emphasis. The big crowd is just the perk."