Rio de Janeiro -- It was on a trip to Brazil's Pantanal swamplands in 1994 that Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Moonie sect, revealed his dream of a "heaven on earth" in a remote part of South America. "Brazil is huge, with a small mind. We will open it and show the Third World can be rich," the Korean billionaire declared. "I will build world peace and bring prosperity." But after buying more than 2m acres the founder of the Unification Church, as it is officially known, has problems.
Brazilian MPs, the intelligence services and the police are investigating the sect's activities. The army called Moon's plan to build what amounts to his own state "a threat to national sovereignty". It is especially concerned that his holdings include 300 miles of the border with Paraguay, reducing its control over a region used for drug running and money laundering.
Police have raided Moonie sites in the southwestern state of Matto Grosso do Sul and in Sao Paulo, seizing documents and bank records, while investigating alleged tax evasion and immigration violations. They also visited the home and offices of the Kim Yoon-sang, the sect's local leader. The investigation began after a former employee accused Moonies of money laundering. Moon's lawyers reject the accusations as "pure religious persecution."
Moon, 82, founded his church in South Korea in 1954 and became known for accumulating wealth and business interests worldwide. He preaches a mix of Christianity, Confucianism and Buddhism, and focuses on his self-professed gift at matchmaking. Couples marry at mass weddings after their images are picked from piles of photographs.
At one time the Moonies were said to have 4.6m members. But Moon's following in America fell dramatically after he was sentenced to 18 months in jail in the 1980s for tax evasion and was tainted by scandal when a daughter-in- law alleged her husband was addicted to cocaine.
Last month Moon advertised in American newspapers proclaiming that Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha and God had told him he is "the Saviour, Messiah and King of Kings of all of humanity!" Although Moon retains a sizeable business empire in the United States, including a newspaper and a university, he appears to have ploughed large sums into South America, buying banks and newspapers in Uruguay as well as land on the Brazil-Paraguay border.
At the heart of his project is the New Hope Ranch on infertile, deforested land. It is an unlikely setting for paradise, but a sign reading "Welcome to the Garden of Eden" hangs over its entrance and about 200 followers live there.
"We can make this region rich," said Cesar Zadusky, who manages the ranch for Moon who - with his wife - commutes to and from his £7m apartment in New York.
The site has a conference hall, dormitories, dining areas and an ostrich farm, producing meat popular with Brazil's rich. There is also a school for 300 children - and plans for a university. Moon tried to appease local people by donating an ambulance and a small airport. To boost his support among football-mad Brazilians he bought the local team and promised a giant stadium for games - and mass weddings.
His proposals to develop tourism and to build hotels have so far come to nothing, however. This and his moves into Paraguay have fuelled local people 's suspicions.
Land bought in Paraguay includes Puerto Casado, whose inhabitants frequently protest against "the Moonie invasion". They want the government in Asuncion to recover the town, claiming sect members threatened to expel citizens who refused to join their ranks.
Although Moon says he plans to "industrialise" and "develop" this impoverished region, it could be some time before he convinces his hosts that he is serious about building an earthly paradise.