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In a remote corner of the world, Rev. Moon sees hope

The controversial Unification Church leader is executing a plan to change the world - and his church - in the plains of Brazil.

By DAVID ADAMS Times Latin America Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 11, 1998


JARDIM, Brazil -- This remote corner of South America would hardly seem the place to launch an ambitious plan to change the world.

Three-and-a-half hours' drive from the nearest city, the remote southwestern plains of Brazil are cowboy country, a land of vast haciendas and muddy rivers.

But that's not the way the Rev. Sun Myung Moon sees it.

The 78-year-old multimillionaire and founder of the Unification Church -- a controversial religious sect with large financial investments in the United States -- has decided this sparsely populated frontier with Paraguay and Bolivia is the ideal place to build a new "Kingdom of Heaven on Earth."

Officially, the project is known as the New Hope Ranch. But Moon, who thinks of himself as a latter-day Messiah, likes to call it his Garden of Eden.

Off a potholed road, over a bridge and down a dirt track, New Hope stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding countryside. The site is in the first stage of construction, but a cluster of more than 20 buildings, including classrooms, dormitories, a large theater and a 2,000-seat dining hall, already give it the appearance of an orderly university campus.

Last month, some 200 Japanese and Korean visitors attended a 40-day spiritual workshop here. While some were in class, others helped prepare meals or assisted in laying gravel. Later in the day, dozens of women in floppy hats spent the afternoon fishing in a light drizzle.

Moon's utopian plan is to turn this impoverished area of Mato Grosso do Sul province into a flourishing community the size of a small country. The church has spent some $25-million buying up 200,000 acres of farmland. Moon has promised to create jobs by building hotels, roads and even an airport.

When the project is complete in eight years, the New Hope Ranch will be a world model for the development of education, agriculture and tourism, Moon's followers say.

"Rev. Moon's idea is to show the world how to end hunger and bring world peace," said Kim Yoon Sang, New Hope's president, who speaks in broken English. "Brazil big country, unlimited resources. Enough to feed all Latin America and starving people of Africa. No problem."

But experts who have closely followed Moon's career view New Hope more as one of the last, bizarre ventures in a long series of spiritual and financial enterprises by the aging leader of a shrinking sect.

"Moon has become disillusioned with the United States," said David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has studied the church for more than 15 years. Bromley says legal problems and family scandals have badly damaged the church's following in the United States. "His membership has dwindled to only a few. So he is pulling resources out of America and putting them into places where he can make more of a splash."

* * *

Born in South Korea, Moon has lived in the United States since the 1970s, where his breakaway theology argues for the unification of all religion under his leadership as the True Father. The Unification Church considers Jesus a failed messiah, and Moon the new Chosen One.

Moon's church, which mixes Christianity with anti-communism and Confucianism, attracted thousands of disciples at first. The church rented stadiums to stage mass weddings of couples brought together by Moon.

But critics accused the church of forcing recruits to cut off all relations with family and the outside world. Parents hired "deprogramers" to get their wayward children returned, accusing Moon of brainwashing.

Moon also established a billion-dollar business empire that today includes, in the United States alone: the Washington Times newspaper, a nationwide cable TV network (Nostalgia), a Connecticut university, a recording studio and travel agency in Manhattan, a horse farm in Texas, a golf course in California, a seafood business in Miami and an Oriental restaurant in Tampa. Abroad, Moon's interests extend from the manufacture of weapons and ginseng in Korea and computers and religious icons in Japan, to newspapers, hotels and a bank in South America.

Moon also has enjoyed political support among conservatives. Ronald Reagan called the Washington Times his favorite newspaper. When Moon launched a Spanish version, Tiempos del Mundo, two years ago in Argentina, former president George Bush gave the inaugural address (for a fee he would not disclose). He called Moon a man of vision.

But the reputation of the church has never fully recovered from a scandal in the late '70s when Moon was briefly jailed in the United States for tax evasion. Despite his business success, U.S. membership, which peaked at about 30,000 in the early 1980s, is down to only a few thousand.

Moon has increasingly become an outspoken critic of American society. "America is the kingdom of extreme individualism, the kingdom of free sex," Moon said in a May 1 speech in New York. "The country that represents Satan's harvest is America. ... America doesn't have anywhere to go now."

Such views may be related to the latest scandal to envelop Moon's church, involving damaging revelations about his family. In a new memoir, the former wife of one of Moon's sons recounts in detail how her husband -- the church's potential heir -- abused her while addicted to cocaine. He is not the only member of Moon's family to have trouble. Another son died in a high-speed car crash, and one of Moon's daughters has turned against him.

* * *

Having given up on North America, Moon appears to be refocusing his energies on Latin America.

Moon has yet to take up full-time residence at New Hope, but Unification officials say he spends almost half of his time there, commuting by Lear Jet between his $10-million mansion in suburban New York and a luxurious estate in nearby Uruguay, where he owns several businesses including a bank.

The church is being revamped, shedding much if its spiritual identity in favor of universal issues of family values and world peace. In Brazil, Moon's organization recently changed its name to the Association of Families for Unification and World Peace.

Followers insist New Hope is open to all faiths. "Our intention is a family, not a religion," Kim said.

Over a spicy Korean lunch of fish and vegetables on the veranda of his wooden office, Kim handed over presentation of the project's goals to the Rev. Hideo Oyamada, Moon's continental director of operations.

Oyamada began with a rough map, drawing a circle 250 miles across, around Jardim, the nearest small town to New Hope. Moon's plan, he said, was to buy up all the land in this area, a sizeable chunk of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Development of the region had been held back by Brazil's medieval land-owning system controlled by a handful of wealthy ranchers, he explained. "Brazil very difficult. Big country with small mind," he said. "We try to open."

Moon's plan is to break the region up into 33 "cities" each dedicated to one product -- fish farming, handicrafts, eco-tourism and a variety of crops. Each city would have its own factories, schools and hospitals.

"This land very poor," Oyamada said. "But very fertile, very beautiful, just like Garden of Eden, we feel."

Moon discovered the region, which sits on the edge of the lush Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, while on a fishing trip in December 1994. He was fascinated by the stunning variety of wildlife he encountered, including many rare tropical species of fish and the endangered rhea -- a South American ostrich.

"It's just like Jurassic Park," Oyamada said. "If (Steven) Spielberg came here he'd be surprised. There are species that are 35-million years old."

Moon also was struck by the confluence of two rivers, the Prata and Miranda, which meet near New Hope. It inspired him with the notion of a modern-day Mesopotamia, the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the ancient cradle of civilization.

It's a vision that is tough to share. New Hope is a tiny oasis surrounded by miles of open countryside, dotted with giant ant hills and herds of cattle.

* * *

But there may indeed be something in the seemingly madcap scheme. The Pantanal is considered by many scientists to be one of the most important ecosystems in the world.

It may look like the middle of nowhere, but as Oyamada points out "this is the real center of the Americas," close to markets in Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay, where Moon has also quietly acquired large amounts of land and several businesses.

Governments in the region have long discussed opening shipping routes through southwest Brazil by dredging local rivers, linking agricultural regions in the north to the Atlantic Ocean near Buenos Aires.

If that ever were to happen -- over the objections of local environmentalists -- Moon would indeed be well-placed for stage two of his grand scheme: expanding across Latin America.

"Moon is obviously a very expansive thinker who has great plans for the world, which may or may not pan out," Bromley said. "After all, he's trying to reform the world on a limited budget."

In the past, many of Moon's ideas have flopped, among them ambitious land purchases in Africa, a car manufacturing venture in China and a lobster fishing fleet in Louisiana.

"Most of his ideas are trial and error," said Eileen Barker, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics, who has studied Moon. "He's certainly got vision. Whether it's 20-20 vision is another question."

So far the church has encountered little or no opposition from local ranchers only too willing to part with uncultivated land, which Moon has picked up for as little as $500 an acre.

Residents in Jardim, a dusty town of 20,000, were bemused when Moon showed up. "At first they misunderstood us. They thought maybe we were drug dealers or looking for gold and diamonds," Oyamada said.

Moon has gone to considerable expense to cultivate friendships in the area. New Hope regularly opens its doors to the locals, holding barbecues. When the church held a mass blessing for 3,000 couples in a Sao Paulo soccer stadium in June, hundreds showed up at the ranch to watch the event live by satellite.

Attitudes began to change when he offered jobs to more than 100 construction workers. Local politicians got interested when he offered new ambulances to 32 local mayors. Only three turned him down. Moon is also said to have provided a helicopter to one of the candidates in recent elections.

Jardim residents know little about Moon's background. Brazil's media have given scant coverage to the church's presence.

The only disapproval has come from the local Roman Catholic Church. Jardim's priest, Father Bruno Brugnolaro, laughs at the idea of all religions being taught at New Hope. "What they want to do is substitute all religions. The Catholic Church has made it very clear what it thinks about that," he said.

"Moon says Jesus Christ was a failure because he was single and had no children. I don't think he knows much about the Bible. How can he talk about family when he has been married several times? He's just a man with money who is confusing many of the weaker people."

He also questioned how much support Moon has in town. "I don't know of any converts," he said. New Hope employs only 20 townspeople, and the church buys most of its food and building materials in the state capital, Campo Grande, where prices are cheaper.

* * *

For all the money Moon spends here, New Hope may never get off the ground. Employees admit the greenhouses have yet to yield much produce. The farms' only cattle were slaughtered to feed visiting workshop students.

Recruitment also may be a problem. So far almost all the students are from Japan or Korea, and only a handful have shown up from Brazil, the United States or Europe. New Hope's classrooms were due to open in February but the first group of 1,000 students arrived in July. The students pay their own air fare and a fee of several hundred dollars for the course. Future attendance could be affected by the financial crisis in Asia, said Siew Sim Ooi, a Malaysian native who works in Moon's accounting department.

Moon's South American plans also could be upset by a new financial scandal brewing in Uruguay. Late last month the Central Bank placed Moon's Banco de Credito under government supervision because of management and liquidity problems.

The bank has come under increasing public scrutiny following allegations that Moon has kept the troubled institution afloat with mysterious cash deposits. In November 1996, bank employees allege a parade of some 4,200 Japanese followers -- all women -- deposited as much as $80-million at the bank.

It's still unclear how this may affect Moon's plans for New Hope. But if South America falls through, it's hard to imagine where he might turn next.

The Garden of Eden is a tough act to follow.

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