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NEWFOUNDLAND, PENNSYLVANIA — People across the world were shocked as hundreds of couples carrying AR-15 rifles filled a Pennsylvania church on Wednesday in a mass ceremony where their marriages were blessed and their firearms hailed as divine “rods of iron.”
Across social media and elsewhere, many shared photos of the spectacle in the belief that this was the latest manifestation of U.S. gun culture gone awry – a clear sign, perhaps, that right-wing Evangelical Christianity had jumped the shark. Mistaken captions misidentifying congregants as “Christians” contributed to the sentiment.
Lost amid the bemusement and outrage was the fact that this wasn’t just any church: this was the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary of Reverend Hyung-jin “Sean” Moon, a splinter group from the Unification Church founded by his father, the charismatic cult leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
During the ceremony – dubbed a “Cosmic True Parents of Heaven, Earth and Humanity Book of Life Registration Blessing” – Hyung-jin prayed for “a kingdom of peace police and peace militia where the citizens, through the right given to them by almighty God to keep and bear arms, will be able to protect one another and protect human flourishing,” according to the Associated Press.
Watch | Couples have firearms blessed at US church service
Advocating for the militant exercise of one’s right to bear arms, he admonished his flock to “use the power of the ‘Rod of Iron’ not to harm or oppress as has been done in the satanic kingdoms of this world, but to protect God’s children.” The phrase “rod of iron” is from the biblical Book of Revelation.
The ceremony came after 17 students and school faculty were killed and 14 injured in a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, on February 14. According to the church’s website, the mass ceremony was planned before the shooting:
Blessed couples are requested to bring the accouterments of the nation of Cheon Il Guk (“kingdom of heaven on earth”), crowns representing the sovereignty of Kings and Queens, and a ‘rod of iron,’ designated by the Second King as an AR15 semi-automatic rifle or equivalents such as an AK semi-automatic rifle, representing both the intent and the ability to defend one’s family, community and ‘nation of Cheon Il Guk.’”
The ceremony was the latest in a long line of publicity stunts by acolytes of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, collectively known “Moonies.” The main branch of the Unification Church, run by Rev. Hyung-jin’s mother Hak-ja Han, denounced the ceremony and claimed that Moon theology is dedicated to “world peace” and not weapons — a dubious claim for the notorious cult.
Read more by Elliott Gabriel
Moon’s Unification Church — which formed at around the same time as L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology — earned notoriety for its mass weddings between total strangers and its massive chaebol business empire. The reputation for eccentricity eventually took a sinister turn after stories of sleep deprivation, enforced malnutrition, forced labor, physical abuse, and sophisticated forms of mind control at Unification camps began to catch headlines.
Hyung-jin Moon formed the Pennsylvania-based Sanctuary Church with the support of his arms-manufacturer brother, Kook-jin “Justin” Moon, following the death of his father.
In a 2016 video posted to Hyung-jin’s YouTube channel, President Donald Trump’s son Eric can be seen speaking at the opening of the Tommy Gun Warehouse in Greeley, PA, a business owned by Kook-jin Moon’s Kahr Firearms Group. Afterwards, Hyung-jin is seen socializing with Eric Trump and assorted militiamen as his wife and church co-leader, Yeon Ah Lee-moon, engages in animated conversation with Eric’s wife, Lara.
Watch | Eric Trump at the Tommy Gun Warehouse grand opening
Like his father, Rev. Hyung-jin is an ultra-right anti-communist extremist. Clad in camouflage jackets, a bullet crown, and black Carhartt overalls, Hyung-jin nurses a single-minded obsession with the divine power of firearms, martial arts, and the “Rod of Iron.”
In a February sermon, Hyung-jin uses the language of the alt-right in a three-hour rant in which he comes off as a macho, spoiled rich-kid — not unlike Eric Trump or Donald Trump, Jr. Speaking in a rapid, clipped tone, he offers “Bro”-accented fulminations to parishioners about how they’re “little babies” and “little beta-male wimps, beta-girl, beta-women wimps,” “dumb idiots” who have “clearly never been beat up by MMA guys” or “high-level alpha-guys” like him who can “see right through your crap.”
The latest neo-Moonie stunt provides ample reason for looking into the strange history of the Moon sect, which was born in the neo-fascist national security and foreign intelligence circles of Asia at the dawn of the Cold War.
Washington’s King of Peace (or Lord of War)
Reverend Sun Myung Moon died in 2012 at age 92 while firmly at the helm of a lucrative religious and commercial empire.
The controversy surrounding Moon – who was variously called a tax swindler, a media kingpin, a spy, and a real estate mogul – reached an apex in 2004 when he was crowned the “King of Peace” in a ceremony at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington that was attended by a dozen U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Lindsey Graham.
The event was organized by a Moonie front group, the Interreligious and International Peace Council, which claims to represent Christians, Jews and Muslims. Lubovitch orthodox Rabbi Mordecai Waldman even sounded a shofar and proclaimed Moon the “messiah,” declaring:
I have never seen this miracle where Jews, Christians and Muslims come together for peace!”
Watch | Sun Myung Moon crowned King of Peace at the US Senate building
Wearing white gloves, Congressman Danny K. Davis carried a pillow with a crown to Moon and his wife as they were dubbed “the King and Queen of Peace.”
Wearing regal, medieval-style robes and speaking before the crowd of dignitaries in Korean, “King” Moon spoke of his numerous seances with figures from the “spirit world”:
[M]any other leaders in the spirit world, including even Communist leaders such as Marx and Lenin, who committed all manner of barbarity and murders on earth, and dictators such as Hitler and Stalin, have found strength in my teachings, mended their ways and been reborn as new person … Emperors, kings and presidents who enjoyed opulence and power on earth, and even journalists who had worldwide fame, have now placed themselves at the forefront of the column of the true love revolution…. They have declared to all Heaven and Earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord and True Parent.”
Days later, Moon official Chung Hwan Kwak crowed:
The crowning means America is saying to Father, ‘Please become my king.’ … The ‘outside’ view of the Capitol Hill event was that Father received a crown, an award for his years of dedication and leadership in reconciliation and peace-making. The ‘inside’ view of the event was that America surrendered to True Parents in the king’s position.”
From humble preacher to global anti-communist kingpin
Born on Jan. 6, 1920, in present-day North Korea during the period of Japanese colonialism, Moon joined the Presbyterian Church when he was 10 years old, a convert from the Confucian tradition.
Moon claimed that while praying at the age of 16, he received a revelation from Jesus Christ beseeching him to establish God’s kingdom on earth, prompting him to become a preacher. Later, he recounted that he was visited by a range of other religious figures from the spirit world, including (but not limited to) Abraham, Moses, the Lord Buddha, and the Prophet Muhammad.
Following the Japanese defeat, the preacher moved to Seoul where he attended a church headed by a pastor who called Korea the “new Israel,” stipulating that a new messiah would soon arise – a message Moon clearly took to heart.
He eventually brought his messianic proselytizing to Pyongyang, where he founded the Kwang-Ya Church and allegedly took part in sexual riteswith his flock. Moon was subsequently arrested by the state security forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on suspicion of spying for the rival right-wing Republic of Korea, which was backed by the United States and had been undertaking a major campaign of repression against Korean leftists. In 1954, Moon was freed by advancing U.S. troops. Later in Seoul, Moon founded the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity or Unification Church.
A 1978 article from the Washington Star shows that a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency report dated 1963 said (South) Korean CIA founding director Kim Jong-pil “organized the Unification Church … and has been using the church, which has a membership of 27,000, as a political tool.”
In the 1986 book Inside the League, authors Scott and Jon Lee Anderson detail Moon’s shady role in the cloak-and-dagger Cold War politics of the time:
One Moon mission was to rally anti-communist, pro-Korean forces in Asia. With the backing of the Korean government and with funds coming partly from his share in state-controlled Korean industries, including the Tong-il Armaments Company, .. Moon established the International Federation for the Extermination of Communism. Although the dramatic name probably endeared him to the Korean military, it was a little much for other countries; the U.S. branch was called the Freedom Leadership Foundation.”
Moon eventually linked up with like-minded Japanese tycoons and ultranationalists who were accused of grievous war crimes during the 1946-1948 Tokyo War Crimes Trials.
One of Moon’s backers was yakuza (Japanese mafia) crime boss and fascist organizer Yoshio Kodama (1911-1984). The notorious Kodama earned fame as a shameless looter of Southeast Asia and China through his private army, the Kodama Kikan. He was also an opium trader, original financier of the present ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and a “behind-the-scenes power-broker” of U.S. military contractor Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Kodama was later revealed to have extensive tieswith the CIA — but the agency never trusted the opportunist yakuza don owing to his corrupt nature as a “professional liar, gangster, charlatan and outright thief.”
Moon’s primary Japanese backer — “Japan’s archangel,” in his own words — was philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa (1899-1995). Sasakawa was a pre-war fascist leader, proud Class-A war-crimes suspect, and billionaire magnate, who cut his teeth alongside Kodama as a war-profiteer in the Japanese campaigns of aggression during World War II before becoming a gambling tycoon after the war. In his advanced years, he resorted to shameless Moon-like self-promotion, funding a number of NGO initiatives in his own name and attempting to bribe his way to a Nobel Peace Prize as a way to recast his legacy as one of humanitarianism. This was accompanied by an outlandish multimillion-dollar series of TV commercials depicting him as a sweet old man, and literature such as the 1981 biography Sasakawa: The Warrior for Peace, the Global Philanthropist.
An Imperial-era Mussolini-admirer who flew the first entirely Japanese-made airplane to Rome to meet Il Duce, Sasakawa took pride in his close friendships with the dictators Syngman Rhee of South Korea, Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos. The philanthropist was also a World Anti-Communist League founding member who bragged to Time magazine, “I am the world’s richest fascist.” From around 1960 onwards, the Japanese blackshirt Sasakawa was a top advisor and principal funder of the Moon organization’s religious-commercial empire.
Moon’s worldwide business ventures could only expand from there, and eventually included newspapers in various countries (including the right-wing Washington Times), seafood multinational corporation True World Foods, United Press International news agency, the five-star Marriott Hotel in Seoul, a titanium mine, a pharmaceuticals and tea company, tens of thousands of acres of land in South America, a ballet company, a construction firm, a car plant in China (and eventually in North Korea), and a weapons plant belonging to Tongil (“Unification”) Heavy Industries in South Korea.
The Andersons offered evidence that the Japanese ultra-rightists’ close alliance with Moon wasn’t a matter of their shared politics alone. There was a much more pragmatic reason for the partnership — namely, the smuggling of arms to the Japanese yakuza gangs who doubled as fascist anti-labor shock brigades:
Since the end of World War II, Japan has had extremely strict gun-control laws, and weapons for the yakuza gangs have had to be smuggled in one by one. Under the Korean government’s patronage, the Unification Church owned and operated Tong-il Industries. Tong-il is a weapons manufacturer that makes rifles and components for M-16 assault rifles. It also operates the Yewha Air Gun Company in Kyonggi-Do, Korea.
In 1975, seven years after the Yamanashi conference, the Japanese importer of air rifles from Korea was a shadow company, Angus Arms Company, which was not registered or in any corporate directory. The rifles, according to political analyst Pharris Harvey in a memorandum to the House Subcommittee on International Relations in May 1978, ‘are sold, exclusively it seems to members of Shokyo Rengo and UC [Unification Church].’”
The M16 assault rifle is, of course, the U.S. military variant of the ArmaLite AR-15 semi-automatic rifle that the Virginia congregants were clutching on Wednesday. The Moon organization denies that it took part in the manufacturing of those firearms.
A multinational paramilitary Messiah
When Moon relocated to the United States, he quickly integrated into right-wing Republican circles, warming to several figures including President Richard Nixon. The eccentric anti-communist earned fame during the Watergate scandal when he fasted three days on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building in a bid to prevent God from letting Nixon be impeached, calling his National Prayer and Fast for the Watergate Crisis “the only way to heal and unite this nation.”
In 1978, following Watergate, Moon’s fortunes briefly soured after he was implicated in the Koreagate scandal, where he was found to have played a role in the bribery of U.S. officials by South Korean businessmen.
In a withering report by the Congressional Subcommittee on International Organizations, the Unification Church was called “a multinational corporation … a paramilitary organization … and a tightly disciplined international political party.” The report added:
Among the goals of the Moon Organization is the establishment of a worldwide government in which the separation of church and state would be abolished and which would be governed by Moon and his followers.”
The investigation into Moon’s proprieties was dropped after Ronald Reagan was elected president. In 1982, however, he was found guilty of tax fraud and sentenced to 18 months in prison — drawing the protests of U.S. clergy, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Upon his release after 13 months, Moon became fast friends with U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Senators Strom Thurmond and Orrin Hatch, former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, Reverend Jerry Falwell, and numerous other notable figures in Western Cold War geopolitics.
Moon’s newspaper, The Washington Times, was founded in 1982. Before long, the Times became a major propaganda outlet and attack dog for the Republican Party, as well as the Unification Church’s global business empire and extreme right-wing network. As late investigative journalist Robert Parry wrote in his extensive expose of the Times:
The Times … has targeted American politicians of the center and left with journalistic attacks — sometimes questioning their sanity, as happened with Democratic presidential nominees Michael Dukakis and Al Gore. Those themes then resonate through the broader right-wing echo chamber and into the mainstream media.
Washington Times articles are routinely cited by C-SPAN, for instance, without explanations to viewers that the newspaper is financed by an ultra-right religious cult leader, a convicted tax fraud and a publicly identified money-launderer. Most American listeners just think they’re getting straightforward news.
The Times also has led attacks on investigators who threatened to expose crimes committed by Republican and right-wing operatives. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Times targeted Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who recounted in his memoir Firewall the importance of the Times in protecting the Reagan-Bush administration’s legal flanks.
Moon’s organization played a strong role pumping funds and support into anti-communist efforts in South and Central America throughout the 70s and 80s, through the Confederation of the Associations for the Unification of the Societies of the Americas (CAUSA), which promoted “Godism” as an answer to “godless” Marxism-Leninism and Catholic liberation theology.
While Catholics abhorred the Unification Church initiative — the Honduras Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops said the group was “truly anti-Christian” and promulgated “a species of material and spiritual slavery” — the Moon organization continued to fund Latin American death-squad leaders and right-wing officials, even organizing trips to South Korea to meet their right-wing Korean cohorts.
CAUSA boasted of its presence in nearly every Latin American country. Members offered financial and logistical aid — including basic supplies, cash and emergency relief — to the MISURA indigenous contras of Nicaragua who fought the Sandinistas. War correspondent Scott Anderson directly observed anti-communist combatants in Honduras wearing red CAUSA T-shirts.
Moon’s reputation eventually suffered amid increased scrutiny and widespread mockery of his mass wedding ceremonies, as well as his anti-semitism, homophobia, sexism, family in-fighting, and racism.
However, his enduring clout was confirmed in 2004 at the notorious Washington “messiah” ceremony.
Watch | Legacy of South Korea’s Unification Church under threat
Palace intrigues plague the True Family
While Sun Myung died in 2012, his empire still thrives. The Unification cult dubs the Moons the “true family” — implying infallible, divine perfection, despite tales of cocaine abuse, adultery and partying that would make Tony Montana blush — yet the Moons have had no shortage of embarrassing games of thrones.
Sun Myung’s seventh son Hyung-jin “Sean” Moon was passed the baton as rightful heir to the Unification Church in 2008 but, after the elder’s death, a succession struggle tore the family apart. Hyung-jin’s mother, Hak-ja Han, demanded he return to Korea in what amounted to a coup against the anointed “Second King” — an event known to Sanctuary neo-Moonies as “the fall of the Han Mother.”
Instead, Hyung-jin moved to Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, and declared the Unification Church invalid and the new Sanctuary Church to be the “true” Moonie faith.
Hyung-jin had the support of his brother, Kook-jin “Justin” Moon, the founder and head of Kahr Firearms Group, a U.S.-based arms manufacturer affiliated with the Tongil Group that owns the Kahr Arms, Auto-Ordnance and Magnum Research brands.
A brief perusal of Hyung-jin’s sermons reveals a young man who’s still seething and snorting with rage over his mother’s having “betrayed Christ.”
In an online invitation to a “President Trump Thank You Dinner,” the Sanctuary Church declares:
President Trump has stepped into his calling as God’s representative. We all have to be serious to do our best to support the providence and help convince Senators that The (Concealed Carry) Reciprocity Act HR38 needs to become law.”
With its bullet crowns, AR-15 honor guard, and outlandish origin story, Rod of Iron Ministries may be one of the most bizarre “Mad Max”-style cults in modern U.S. history. The sect’s sudden appearance on the U.S. public radar is a reflection not only of the country’s gun culture, but of U.S. imperialism’s history of political dealings with corrupt reactionaries and religious extremists across the globe.
Top Photo | The Rev. Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, the leader of Unification Sanctuary, left, and his wife, Rev. Yeon Ah Lee Moon. preside over a ceremony at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, Wednesday Feb. 28, 2018 in Newfoundland, Pa. The woman seated at the back is Hyun Shil Kang, who is regarded by the Unification Sanctuary as the first disciple and follower of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, as well as his spiritual wife. (AP/Jacqueline Larma)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.