Kofi Annan will this week put a former leading "Moonie" in charge of the UN's biggest humanitarian aid agency after vigorous lobbying by the Bush administration.
Josette Sheeran is to be appointed executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), according to diplomatic and UN sources.
Josette Sheeran reportedly left the Moonies more than 10 years ago. Photograph: Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images
Ms Sheeran, also known by her married name Shiner, was a member of the Rev Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church for more than 20 years. She became one of its most influential figures as managing editor of the Washington Times newspaper, which was founded by Mr Moon.
A US state department spokesman said last week that Ms Sheeran, the under-secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs, was "our candidate". He acknowledged that a pamphlet circulated in support of her application had been funded by US taxpayers and said Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, had "made phone calls in support of Josette's candidacy".
The spokesman told the Guardian that Ms Sheeran had not been a member, or had any association with, the Moonies for more than a decade and that it had no bearing on her work. "In America, we regard religion as a private matter," he said.
However, in Rome, where WFP has its headquarters, some officials privately expressed concern. "She has never distanced herself from the views of this group which, given its extreme nature, you would think was appropriate," said one. He referred to Mr Moon's claims that the Holocaust was a result of the death of Jesus. "It's sufficiently bizarre to warrant an explanation - that, and the duration of her involvement."
Her departure from the Unification Church was reported by the Washington Post in 1997, which said Ms Sheeran had been worshipping at an Episcopal (Anglican) church for the previous 18 months.
Any perceived link between the Moonies and WFP is particularly sensitive because of the agency's role on the Korean peninsula. Since the mid-1990s WFP, the UN's leading supplier of food aid, has handed the communist-ruled North hundreds of millions of dollars worth of food.
Mr Moon, who was born in what is now North Korea, has close ties with the communist regime despite being a fervent anti-Marxist. Companies associated with the Unification Church own two hotels in Pyongyang, the capital, and a car assembly plant. In 1991, Mr Moon visited the country's then dictator, Kim Il-sung.
The next year, Ms Sheeran became the first US reporter in 20 years to interview the "Great Leader". She described him as "presenting the image of a self-confident, reflective elder statesman rather than the reclusive, dogmatic dictator he is usually portrayed as in the west".
Ms Sheeran joined the Moonies as a young woman. She married another member of the Unification Church, Whitney Shiner, who trained at its Theological Seminary. They are now divorced and Mr Shiner, a Washington professor, has also left the group. In 2001, she entered the US administration as an associate trade representative.
WFP's executive directors are chosen by the UN secretary general and the director-general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), notionally in consultation with the WFP board. A senior western diplomat said a provisional decision was due to be forwarded to the board last week, but the process was held up to allow consultation with the incoming secretary general, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea. Mr Ban is not related to Mr Moon and is not linked to the Unification Church.
According to a UN source, Mr Annan and FAO director-general Jacques Diouf had discarded Ms Sheeran before Mr Ban's intervention. But this was denied by other UN and diplomatic sources in New York and Rome, who said she was the first choice. The WFP board is due to meet this week to approve the decision.
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