In sickness and in health: South Korea mass wedding defies coronavirus fears

Only some of the 6,000 couples wed by the Unification Church chose to wear face coverings

Some brides wore white face masks, their grooms black ones as thousands of couples tied the knot in a mass Unification Church wedding Friday in South Korea on Friday.

The church founded by Sun Myung Moon – revered as a messiah by his followers – distributed face coverings to the 30,000 crowd, but only some donned them despite concerns over the outbreak of a deadly new coronavirus in neighbouring China.

Among those who went without was Choi Ji-young, 21-year-old university student who met her husband, selected by the church, only two months ago.

"I am overwhelmed that I am getting married today," she said.

"It would be a lie if I said I was not concerned at all about the infection. But I feel like I will be protected from the virus today."

South Korea has recorded 24 cases of the novel coronavirus outbreak, while China has confirmed more than 30,000. Seoul has barred entry to foreigners who have recently been in the Chinese city Wuhan, the epidemic's centre.

Festivals, graduation ceremonies, and K-pop concerts have been cancelled over fears large events could facilitate virus transmission, and authorities have asked religious groups to co-operate 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 identical-dressed couples from 64 countries, many of whom met only in recent weeks, married in Gapyeong on Friday, 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.

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. It claims a worldwide following of three million, experts suggest the core membership is far smaller.

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".