Land-buying sows suspicion

Florida Sun-Sentinel/May 18, 2002
By Patrice M. Jones

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil -- In a region that borders one of the world's great wildlife preserves, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon proclaimed after a fishing trip in 1994 that he would build a heavenly haven for his followers.

However, state legislators, the governor and federal police in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul are all investigating the paradise founded by the 82-year-old leader of the Unification Church after, they say, Moon acquired more than 1 million acres of property straddling the border of Brazil and Paraguay over the past seven years.

Last week, federal police raided several sites of Moon's Brazil organization, the Association of Families for Unification and World Peace, in Mato Grosso do Sul and also in Sao Paulo state, seizing records and computers in a broad investigation into allegations of money laundering, tax evasion and immigration violations.

Police also targeted the residence and offices of the Rev. Kim Yoon Sang, the Brazilian representative for Moon and his religious group. The state legislature of Mato Grosso do Sul also has its own inquiry, as does Brazil's internal revenue service.

Federal police reported that they began investigating Moon's organization late last year after a former employee said the association was involved in money laundering. A federal judge authorized the seizure of the association's banking records and financial information earlier this year.

"Although formally established in this country as a philanthropic entity, the Association of Families for Unification and World Peace has developed a diverse program, generating worries and a high level of doubt in relation to their true objectives," Brazil's federal police said after the raids.

Police officials have said little publicly about the case. But the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, which fears Moon's operations threaten national sovereignty, also is investigating his activities, according to officials. The Brazilian military has raised concerns that Moon has ambitions to start his own self-styled "nation" in the vast, open lands of South America.

Moon also has stirred up concerns in other places. In neighboring Paraguay, activists appealed for international help last year to attempt to block the sale of 865,000 acres that included a Paraguayan town of 6,000 residents called Puerto Casado, which was sold to a company belonging to the Moon sect. The town was transferred wholesale along with its local church, schools, historical monuments and even its cemetery.

In the Chaco region where Puerto Casado is, indigenous people account for 60 percent of the population but own less than 2 percent of the land. The sale outraged residents, who demanded authorities give them title to the land they had occupied for decades.

Despite the anger and investigations, little evidence has been produced against Moon's organization -- except the ambition to acquire more land.

Brazilian officials say more concrete evidence is coming.

But the association's lawyer, Neudir Ferabolli, whose house was also raided last week, said the investigations are "no less than religious persecution."

"We are not a criminal organization," Ferabolli said in a telephone interview. "We are a religious organization working and trying to do something for society. Everything we have done is according to the law."

But Mato Grosso do Sul federal Judge Odilon de Oliveira, who is investigating the Moon association, said there is reason for concern. "We are investigating the possibility that this association is simply a front for Koreans to buy land at the border," he said.

Brazilian law generally prohibits the sale of land to foreigners, but Moon's organization was able to acquire large tracts of property under the authority of his Brazil-based association, de Oliveira said.

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