Rev. Sun Myung Moon of Unification Church turns 90 as his son assumes key responsibilities

Gapyeong, South Korea - The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, celebrated his 90th birthday Friday with songs, prayers and 1,000 guests from around the world.

His wife, children and guests from Japan, the U.S., Britain and elsewhere sang, prayed and shouted "Hurrah" in a birthday ceremony at the church's sprawling complex in Gapyeong, about 40 miles (60 kilometres) northeast of Seoul. The guests included 18 Malaysian lawmakers.

Gifts from around the world included two Rolex watches from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, church officials said. Moon, who was born in northern Korea before the peninsula was divided into North and South in the 1940s, maintains cordial ties with Kim's government. Well-wishers also included President Barack Obama, officials said.

Aides say the healthy-looking Moon remains in charge of key church affairs, though he has transferred many responsibilities to his children in recent years.

The youngest, 30-year-old Moon Hyung-jin, is expected to take the multibillion-dollar religious and business empire into a second generation. The son, also an ordained minister, is in charge of the church's religious leadership.

Guests bowed to Moon and his wife, Han Hak-ja, and toasted to his health. Moon, dressed in a black suit and pink tie, stayed seated during most of the ceremony, and an aide read his birthday message appealing for humanity and world unity.

"I'm so happy because it's his birthday and he looks healthy," said Ro Youn-hwa, a 51-year-old pastor who flew from Tokyo to attend the celebration. "I hope he'll live long. I hope he lives to 120."

Moon, who founded the Unification Church in 1954, has proclaimed himself a messiah sent to complete Jesus Christ's work on Earth. Over the decades, the church has courted controversy and criticism for some practices seen as extreme.

He is also famous for matching up strangers from different countries in "mass weddings" that critics call proof that the church brainwashes its adherents. On Wednesday, he married off about 7,000 couples in Goyang, outside Seoul.

The church, which claims millions of members worldwide, also owns hundreds of companies, including the Washington Times, the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan and a professional soccer team. The church owns hospitals, schools, a ski resort and even a fledgling carmaker in North Korea.

Moon in recent years has let his children adopt more prominent roles in managing the church, its business ventures and charitable organizations.

"He's in good health," the youngest son said. "Our father continues to make the key decisions for the Unification Church movement."

The elder Moon turned 90 this year according to the Western calendar but is 91 according to the traditional Korean calendar.