Rev. Moon's followers turn Brazil swamp into paradise

Reuters, Dec. 7, 1999
By Noriko Yamaguchi

JARDIM, Brazil, Dec. 7, 1999 (Reuters) - The Rev. Sun Myung Moon was on vacation in Brazil, fishing on the fringes of a huge marsh, when he decided to turn the uncultivated land into paradise.

In just five years since that revelation, the controversial leader of the Unification Church has built a secretive community for his followers -- known to their critics as "Moonies" -- in an area roughly the size of Chicago.

It is found amid wide stretches of rocky infertile farmland in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the world's largest swampland called the Pantanal and a good four-hour drive from Brazil's southwestern city of Campo Grande.

Moon's disciples say he was attracted to the area precisely because it was so remote.

"Why Brazil? Because this place is so underdeveloped and protected from the evils of civilisation. The Reverend thinks this is the best place to practice heavenly life on Earth," said Joo Hyun Lip, education leader for Moon's believers in Jardim.

An imposing white gate at the entrance says "New Hope -- East Garden," a reference to both the surrounding town of Jardim -- Garden in Portuguese -- and to the Garden of Eden. Security guards protect the sprawling community that already has apartment houses for up to 2,000 people, an elementary school, a market and a big temple.

Several hundred church members from the United States, Japan and South Korea flock to this no-man's-land every month, paying a $1,000 fee to pray under the scorching sun and fish in "sacred" lakes once visited by their leader.

Moon's landing in Jardim originally mystified locals who wondered what interest a Korean could have on this side of the world. The 80-year-old religious leader responded by opening up the doors to his empire, allowing dozens of local peasants to come and experience a disciple's life.

Buying Land To Help Illiterate Peasants

Some 100 locals, mostly unmarried, now come to New Hope every month to learn how to read and write. They also receive free meals if they will tolerate several hours of sermons.

New Hope also recruits a handful of young workers to brave long, sweaty days ploughing dusty soil and building dams around mosquito-infested swamps as well as constructing a retirement house for Moon. In return, all the workers get three meals a day with rice and traditional Korean pickles.

This is Moon's way of enlisting new followers from Brazil -- the country with the world's largest Catholic population -- after suffering a drop of popularity in South Korea, Japan and his adopted home, the United States.

"We are educating the poor locals, whose grandfathers were illiterate, whose fathers were illiterate and whose sons will also probably be illiterate," said Cesar Zaduski, the group's Brazilian leader in Jardim.

But millionaire Moon's unusually large purchase of land has started to raise official eyebrows. He took advantage of the country's steep currency devaluation this year to snap up more land around New Hope and cast his net into Paraguay, Brazil's neighbour on the other side of the Pantanal swamps.

Moon says he needs the land to construct a university and a giant soccer stadium to hold his famous mass wedding ceremonies in Brazil. Cash-strapped local landowners were more than happy to trade their uncultivated property for his generous dollars.

The local population had already warmed to Moon after he donated 28 ambulances to poor municipalities and hosted barbecue parties where he gave away imported television sets as prizes. But some Brazilian officials doubt his goodwill.

Officials Worry About Drug Paradise Or Tax Haven

Authorities started questioning Moon's ambitious expansion plans after local police reported two foreigners were found drowned in nearby lakes last year. Police said the victims had actually drowned fishing, but the incident aroused suspicion and the state government of Mato Grosso launched an investigation with the Federal Police into Moon's activities.

They want to know where the money for the land purchases is coming from and what the territory is being used for.

"The Federal Police's major concern is that a lot of drug trafficking goes on in the very region where Moon is buying land," said Rilton Araujo, police chief in Jardim, some 50 miles (80 km) from the border with Paraguay and not far from Bolivia.

Authorities say Brazil is a gateway for selling illegal drugs produced in those two countries.

Jardim Mayor Marcio Monteiro also fears New Hope could be used as a tax haven, pointing to Moon's history of being jailed for tax evasion in the United States in the 1970s.

"They should be paying taxes in Jardim. They are not just a religious organisation but they are actually in a business of accommodation," he said of the thousands of Moon's followers who stay at New Hope.

Moon, who has spent $30 million buying land around Jardim, already owns a bank, hotel and newspaper network in Uruguay as part of his financial ventures. His varied assets in the United States include a Washington-based newspaper, a New York travel agency and an Alaskan seafood canning business.

While locals generally welcome his largess, the Catholic Church is not happy to see his preaching, blending Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism, spread its influence in Jardim.

"Their geographic expansion is worrying," local priest Bruno Brugnolaro said. "Moon's belief of substituting for Jesus Christ is absurd."

While the religious threat posed by Moon seems remote since Brazil already has a wide range of obscure religious groups of its own, the authorities have definitely tuuned in their radar toward possible drug-related problems or tax-avoidance issues.

"At this point it's more like the locals are just trying to find out what they are all about," said Jardim police chief Araujo. "I think a lot of them are actually opportunists who are even trying to make money out of the Moonies' presence, but it's certainly becoming a big issue."

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