Moon Beams Into Brazil

Stirring Controversy, Sun Myung Moon Calls True Believers to Join Him on a Remote Unification Ranch

TIME International Magazine/September 23, 1996
By Michael S. Serrill

At 4:30 a.m. in a remote corner of western Brazil a bell clangs the call to prayer. Soon two dozen young people in jeans and sweatshirts gather in the morning chill to chant their devotion to the "True Father." The image before which they devoutly bow is not that of Jesus Christ, but to them it is thoroughly familiar: the broad, beaming visage of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The 76-year-old Korean evangelist, whose controversial ministry has led him to prison and disrepute in the U.S., has embarked on a grandiose new venture; in a country where his Unification Church has few adherents, Moon is building a $100 million center, a religious and agronomic showcase that is destined to become a pilgrimage site for his true believers everywhere.

The select group of Moon disciples from many countries who greet the dawn at the rugged outpost not far from the Paraguayan border are the vanguard of what could be thousands. Their mission, say Moon's aides, is nothing less than to rebuild the Garden of Eden, a paradise on earth. Already they have bought several farm properties totaling 16,000 hectares in the state of Mato Gross do Sul, and the plan is to purchase another 50,000. The nerve center of the church's operations is the 250-hectare New Hope Ranch, where housing for 300 worker-worshippers is under construction. On its vast holdings, the church says in all seriousness, it will produce food that will help end hunger in the world.

With a seemingly endless supply of cash derived from street-corner and airport solicitations, donations by the faithful and income from various Moon-founded businesses, church leaders have bought a measure of goodwill from local municipalities. At an outdoor banquet in August attended by an estimated 3,000 people, including a dozen local mayors and state-government officials, Moon and his wife (the "True Mother") personally donated 28 new ambulances to cities and towns in the region of the New Hope Ranch. Other local dignitaries have been given all-expenses-paid trips to the Victoria Plaza Hotel in Montevideo, Uruguay, a five-star establishment owned by the Unification Church.

But the goodwill is not universal. Roman Catholic and Protestant evangelical clergy are in a fury about Moon's invasion of their territory. Only days after the banquet, Dom Vitorio Pavanello, Archbishop of Campo Grande, capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, called publicly for Moon, who visits Brazil at will, to be barred from the country. To both Protestants and Catholics, Moon is guilty of grievous doctrinal heresies--by preaching, as he does, that Christ's mother, Mary, was not a virgin, and by arguing that he and his wife, the "True Parents," are on earth to finish the job Jesus failed to do. Says Father Roosevelt Medeiros, a Catholic priest who was one of the first to speak out against Moon: "We repudiate him because he calls himself the Messiah and also because of his past record."

That record includes a year in a U.S. federal prison for tax evasion, plus decades of accusations that the evangelist and his fanatical followers mentally enslave young people to bring them into the church, which Moon and his minions claim has 2 million members worldwide. Among the simple farm folk of rural Brazil, stories have even circulated that Moon followers kidnap and eat children.

Church leaders have tried to soften the opposition with bountiful generosity. The church has held several barbecues at New Hope Ranch, extending invitations to the entire populations of Jardim and Guia Lopes da Laguna, the twin towns on either side of the Miranda River that are closest to the ranch. Local clergymen are not impressed. "Moon is exploiting the poverty around here," says Father Roosevelt. "He is trying to get to the people through their stomachs."

In fact, so far Moon has attracted few Brazilian converts--just 3,000 in a population of nearly 160 million. But his plans are to make the church a major economic, and later religious, force in the nation. Construction will begin soon on a 66,000-sq-m temple and training center at the New Hope Ranch. After that will come a fish farm and fish-powder factory. There will be a giant tree plantation, fruit farm and perhaps high-tech industrial plants. Church members will live and labor at the New Hope Ranch, creating, in the words of the Rev. Yoon Sang Kim, chief planner of the facility, "a new mentality, a new people, a new home, a new society. This is the movement's world center now."

But that grand utopian vision interests local officials less than the vision of jobs and investment. "If they came here to bring improvements, then that's fine," says Colonel Jose Vicente Pires, mayor of Jardim, which got two ambulances. The mayor's assistant, Dalva Cafure, puts it more succinctly: "Money talks in these parts." And on those terms, at least, the Brazilians will listen to all the Rev. Sun Myung Moon has to say.

--Reported by Ian McCluskey/Jardim and Aixa M. Pascual/New York

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.