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Gapyeong, South Korea -
Just hours after the death of Unification Church founder and “messiah” Sun Myung Moon, preparation work had already begun for what Church officials expect will be a huge funeral turnout.
At the church's sprawling, mountain-ringed headquarters in Gapyeong, east of Seoul, workers had started paving a one-kilometre, two-lane road leading to the complex where Moon's funeral will be held on September 15.
Officials said construction work was also set to begin on a special altar inside a large gymnasium at the centre of the complex, where the public will be allowed to offer their prayers from Thursday.
Bo Hi Pak, Moon's close aide for decades, said the number of mourners would be swelled by tens of thousands of church members expected to make the trip from overseas to pay their respects.
“We invited the largest number of guests from Japan, about 30 000 people. We don't know how many people will be visiting from the US,” Pak said.
The Unification Church claims a worldwide following of around three million people, although that figure is disputed by experts who say its popularity peaked in the 1980s and estimate current membership at several hundred thousand at most.
The mood inside the Gapyeong complex was quiet and sombre with no overt signs of mourning, although devotees spoke of their grief at Moon's death from pneumonia-related complications earlier on Monday morning.
“I'm terribly sad. He was our father and the spiritual leader who purified my soul,” said 45-year-old Lee Gil-Won.
“We have lost a great man and messiah. Despite his death, there will be no change in my faith,” Lee added.
While followers mourned the man many of them regarded as a latter-day Jesus Christ, local Gapyeong residents unaffiliated with the church acknowledged his role as a major benefactor of the local economy.
“Many people here don't care about the doctrine. We just remember what Moon and his church contributed to our development,” said local convenience store owner Do Kyu-Nam, 52.
“This area used to be backward and isolated, but since the church arrived we have seen an enormous change,” Do said.
Spread over nearly 1 000 hectares, the Gapyeong estate houses a host of modern facilities, including schools, training centres and a hospital where Moon was treated in the last days of his life.
Immediately after his death, his body was taken to a white marble, mansion-like structure on a hillside overlooking the complex.
Officials said it was a holy place housing a museum displaying many of the gifts Moon had received down the years.
At the movement's main church in Seoul, a handful of followers silently prayed and read a special edition of the church-affiliated newspaper on Moon's death.
Yamanaka Katsuyo, a Japanese follower who married a South Korean man at a mass wedding in Seoul in 1988, said she was devastated by the death of the man she credited with “changing my entire life”.
“He picked a husband for me and we have lived happily ever after with three children,” she told AFP as she wiped tears from her eyes.
“I and other followers kept praying for days at the church for his recovery, hoping that a miracle would happen... but now he will live in our hearts forever,” she said.
Although she had not met her husband prior to the wedding day and spoke almost no Korean, Yamanaka said her marriage had been “the greatest blessing” bestowed by Moon.
“People often see their marriages sour after the romance fades... but our love only got bigger and better as the years rolled on, because he chose the right man for me,” she said.
Other followers who convened at the church declined to comment, saying they wanted to honour a private three-day mourning period.
One devotee, who declined to be named, said: “It's an extremely grave period for us and no words can express my sorrow.”
Numerous others left grief-stricken messages of loss on the church's official website.
“I feel like the sky is falling and the whole world has collapsed,” wrote one.
“You are the eternal king of kings, the messiah of mankind. You will always live in my heart,” wrote another. - Sapa-AFP