BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala., Aug 8 (RNS)--Beneath the live oaks that shadow thestreets of Bayou La Batre, it's hard to remember that 23 years ago, thissleepy town was a religious battleground aswirl with talk of cults andmessiahs and the devil himself.

The nation watched on television as the tough, sea-going families ofthe Bayou rose up against a couple dozen clean-cut young men whoworshipped at the feet of a short Korean man named Moon.

"I see in Reverend Moon the devil," former state Rep. Bob Glass tolda cheering crowd at a 1977 Bayou rally. "Any Moonies here, go back andtell Reverend Moon he made a bad mistake coming to Bayou La Batre."

Today, devil or deity, Moon's face still smiles from photos hangingin Bayou homes, and his followers still bow before it worshipfully.

But the pickets, the threats and the controversy are gone.

Followers of the 80-year-old Rev. Sun Myung Moon--properlydescribed as Unificationists, but popularly called "Moonies," a namethey consider derogatory--say their once-radical movement, based on abelief that Moon was anointed by God to save mankind after Jesus Christfailed to finish the job, has changed.

It has, they say, matured and established an economic, political andspiritual foothold that will allow it to take its place as one of theworld's major religions.

As evidence of the change they point to claims of a growingworldwide membership in the millions; church members elected to statelegislatures in America; images of Moon sharing podiums with two U.S.presidents; and a global network of businesses, including hotels,newspapers, radio and TV stations, car plants, restaurants and majormagazines like Golf Digest.

And one of the first examples of the church's new place in the worldis here in Bayou La Batre, which, in 1995, a worldwide churchpublication described as "a model community, centered on True Parentstradition, to inspire our movement and restore America."

Unificationists run several of the town's largest and mostsuccessful businesses; their shipbuilding company does repair work forthe U.S. Coast Guard and Navy; and they spearheaded a successful effortto get the government to dredge and deepen the bayou, bringing increasedshipbuilding and repair work to the entire area.

They even started the town's soccer league.

"They've been good for Bayou La Batre," Mayor Warren Seaman said."They've really cleaned this place up. They came in and fixed up theirbusinesses, painted them, cleaned up the land. Everybody else had to dothe same so they didn't look worse than the Moonies."

George Callahan, the Republican state senator for south MobileCounty, said he, too, believes the Unificationists have been good forthe Bayou.

"Their family values are probably the thing most Southern familiesremember," he said. "That's what turned things around in the Bayou."

Unificationists say they have been accepted in the Bayou because thelocals realized they had nothing to fear. And church officials predictthat the rest of the country will feel the same way about Moon'sfollowers, just as soon as they meet the new, friendlier face of theUnification Church.

The Unificationists splashed into town in December of 1977, plunkingdown $2 million in the largest land purchase in the history of the smallfishing village. They announced plans to build a shipbuilding andseafood processing empire on 722 acres of undeveloped waterfrontproperty. They also bought two existing shipbuilding businesses and aseafood processing plant.

The town went nuts.

The City Council rezoned the church property from industrial use toresidential. Local businessmen passed the word to quit doing businesswith the newcomers. Town leaders formed two groups, the ConcernedCitizens of the South Inc. and the Concerned Mothers of the South, tofight what they feared were baby-snatching, brainwashing zombies.

The citizen groups rented offices, mailed letters, circulatedpetitions, had meetings and held a monster rally attended by much of thetown's population. It was at that rally where Glass called Moon thedevil.

Moon's Beverly Hills lawyer made short work of the resistance, suingthe entire town council, the police chief and the town's four leadingbusinessmen for deprivation of property rights, deprivation of rightsunder color of law, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights andconspiracy in restraint of fair trade.

"They sued us individually and pretty well shut us up," said RussellSteiner, one of the businessmen named in the church's federal courtsuit. "If we agreed never to say anything about them, they agreed todrop the suit.

..Imagine if you lived in this little-bitty Alabamatown back then and the Moonies suddenly came to town and started buyingup property. Then they sue and shut everybody up.

"People were scared. All we knew about the Moonies was what we heardin the media and what we heard back then was bad."