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Friday, December 5, 1997 Published at 15:10 GMT

image: [ Katty Kay reports from Washington ] Moonies stage a mass wedding

Katty Kay
Reporting from Washington

Last weekend, the US capital Washington witnessed an extraordinary event when some 20,000 couples took part in a mass marriage blessing ceremony organised by the Unification Church, whose followers are often known as Moonies. Most of the couples - dressed in identical white wedding gowns and sombre dark suits - were having their wedding vows renewed. Others were having their union blessed for the first time. Officials said it was the biggest event the Church had held. Our correspondent Katty Kay was there.

The dress was too loose, the petticoat too long and Jennifer just couldn't get her auburn curls to fit neatly under the veil. With only three days to go until the big day, this giggly, 25 year-old bride-to-be was having a clear case of the jitters.

But Jennifer had even more reason to feel nervous than most - she'd only met her groom once before.

Jennifer Perry and Sebastian Jean were married last Saturday by Reverend Sum Yung Moon at a mass ceremony in a Washington sports stadium. They took their places in regimental lines of pristine white gowns and sober dark suits along with 2,500 other couples and promised to stay together for life.

The day I met Jennifer and Sebastian was on their second meeting. As they sat in a diner in the suburbs of Washington, he toyed nervously with the sugar packets while she grinned coyly at the man she will almost certainly spend the rest of her life with.

He wasn't sure how she took her coffee, but was quite confident that Reverend Moon knows what is best for him. The couple were hand picked for each other by the Reverend from photographs.

I got the impression, though, that this interview - despite the intrusive camera - was one of the few times that Sebastian and Jennifer had actually spoken about substantive issues. When she said that her mother disapproved of her arranged marriage, he looked up, surprised, as if this was news to him.

But both insist that they do not regret entering an arranged marriage with a stranger and are happy not to have chosen a partner based on the notions of romantic love and personal happiness.

And that extraordinary decision raises questions about the very nature of marriage.

Americans grow up believing that they've got a right to personal happiness - and an integral part of that right is believing that they have the right to choose their own spouse, and indeed to choose whether or not to stay with that spouse forever.

How then could Jennifer and Sebastian have persuaded themselves to go against the very essence of their individualistic upbringings and abdicate responsibility for one of the most important decisions in their lives?

I found part of the answer at the home of Michael and Elena Smith in Springfield, Virginia.

Michael and Elena were married by Reverend Moon fifteen years ago - they've got four children and lead a seemingly ordinary suburban existence. But when the couple first met - just before their own wedding - they had to overcome huge cultural and linguistic barriers. Elena is from Korea and even today, her English is pretty poor, frankly.

Despite these difficulties, both say they've never even contemplated separation. They say they've married for an ideal which goes beyond personal happiness or the simple notion of love between two people.

Michael describes his marriage as a moral crusade - it is his personal bid to try to stem the flow of rising divorce in America.

Elena says quite candidly that whenever they've had problems she reminds herself that this marriage doesn't really belong to them as individuals. They've dedicated their lives to their faith.

That is not an idea that many Americans or indeed many westerners would readily embrace, but it is too easy to dismiss it outright. The divorce rate amongst Unificationists is less than 10% - that's far below the national average.

And in a country where the breakdown of the family unit undoubtedly contributes to social problems that low divorce rate is admirable. But former members say that it comes at a price.

The thousands of couples celebrating inside the stadium last Saturday swamped a tiny group of protestors shivering on the pavement outside.

Amongst them was a man who had been through one of these weddings and had since left the Church. He said that just as followers come under intense pressure if they try to leave the movement, so couples come under intense pressure if they try to separate.

For those who find it hard to surrender their own free will to the will of the church an arranged marriage with little chance of escape is a frightening proposition - and they know that separation is not part of the Reverend's plan.

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