Aussie cult leader Rocco Leo in Vanuatu land grab

The Herald-Sun, Australia/May 27, 2010

Australian doomsday cult leader Rocco Leo has visited Vanuatu several times to get villagers to donate their land as a safeguard against the apocalypse he says is coming.

Australian police are pursuing Leo, the leader of Agape Ministries, a heavily-armed cult based in South Australia, that says followers must move to Vanuatu before the end of the world, which he predicts will happen in 2012.

Last year, Leo, his girlfriend Marie Veneziano and her brother Joe visited Vanuatu's Santos island province, a 40-minute flight north of the capital Port Vila, and approached numerous people trying to broker land deals.

A local entrepreneur, Kenneth Iad, said in Santos he was the driver who ferried the trio around the island for meetings with various villagers.

"He called himself 'Pastor Rock' and he was here several times, everyone got to know him," Iad said.

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"He told me God gave him the gift for healing and God told him to find a place to build a church for people to get healing.

"I took him all over the island to different people to talk about finding a place for his mission."

But Leo, described as a "charming and charismatic, fast talking preacher" was irked by the villagers' reluctance to part with their land.

"Here in Vanuatu it takes time to get customary land exchanged into privately owned," said Iad.

"You can't just take our land for free with a handshake," he added.

Another Santos businessman who wished to remain anonymous said the visiting group had created a "sensation".

"They spent a night or two at a hotel then would check into another in town," he said.

"We've had to work very hard to convince our workers that this guy 'Pastor Rock' was a conman because he created quite a lot of excitement about his claims he was from God and could heal people."

Vanuatu's Daily Post newspaper reported authorities were on the alert for the Agape Ministries group as Australian investigators fear they may have slipped out of the country.

Police are focusing on claims Agape followers handed over large sums of money to the cult leaders after a core group of 40-60 members sold their houses and businesses.

Last week South Australian police raided 12 properties associated with the cult and uncovered explosives, ammunition and weapons.

The raids involved 90 police officers and netted 15 guns, slow-burning fuses, detonators, extendable batons and 35,000 rounds of ammunition.

Vanuatu, a tax haven and popular Pacific tourist spot, is also home to the Prince Philip Movement, a cargo cult that started up in the 1950s in the southern island of Tanna.

Followers believe Queen Elizabeth's husband is a divine being who will soon return to their village.

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