GAPYEONG, SOUTH KOREA (AFP) - Thousands of couples - some in face masks - tied the knot in a mass Unification Church wedding on Friday (Feb 7), despite concerns in South Korea over the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
The church founded by Sun Myung Moon - revered as a messiah by his followers - distributed face coverings to the 30,000-strong crowd, but only some donned them.
"I am overwhelmed that I am getting married today," said Ms Choi Ji-young, who met her husband - matched by the church - only two months ago.
"It would be a lie if I said I was not concerned at all about the infection," said the 21-year-old university student. "But I feel like I will be protected from the virus today."
South Korea has recorded 24 cases of the coronavirus outbreak that emerged in neighbouring China, where more than 30,000 cases have been confirmed, and Seoul has barred entry to foreigners who have recently been in Wuhan, the epidemic's centre.
Festivals, graduation ceremonies, and K-pop concerts have been cancelled over fears large events could facilitate virus transmission, and the authorities have asked religious groups to cooperate in preventing it spreading.
The church went ahead with the event because it had been "four years in the making", as part of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Moon's birth, said official Jang Young-chul.
But followers from China were asked not to come, he added.
Nearly 6,000 identically dressed couples from 64 countries - many of whom met for the first time in recent weeks - married in Gapyeong, a festive mood filling the venue as newlyweds took group photos and were congratulated by friends and relatives.
Mass weddings, often held in giant sports stadiums with tens of thousands of couples, have long been a signature feature of the church, whose followers have been dubbed "Moonies" after its founder, who died in 2012.
They began in the early 1960s, involving just a few dozen couples at first but with numbers mushrooming over the years. In 1997, 30,000 couples took part in a joint wedding in Washington, and two years later, around 21,000 filled the Olympic Stadium in Seoul.
Those who choose to be matched by the church must confirm under oath that they are virgins, and after their wedding, the couple must refrain from sexual relations for a minimum of 40 days.
Mr Kim Chang-seong, 27, who was marrying a woman whom he met 20 days ago, said he was not concerned about infection because the mass wedding had "special meaning" for him.
"By marrying a fellow church believer, I am taking a path paved by our church leaders."
The teachings of the Unification Church are based on the Bible but with new interpretations, and Moon saw his role as completing the unfulfilled mission of Jesus to restore humanity to a state of "sinless" purity.
While it claims a worldwide following of three million, experts suggest the core membership is far smaller.
Ms Evelyne Chimfwembe, who flew in from Botswana to attend the ceremony with her husband of 28 years, said she was not worried about the virus, as she believed the event would be "under God's control".