RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church – which owns real estate and other assets in Brazil thought to be worth nearly $250 million – is facing a major investigation here for alleged money laundering, tax evasion and abetting illegal immigration.
In addition, Moon's massive land acquisitions along national borders have raised concerns about regional security in South America. If prosecutors prove what they suspect is the real purpose of the church's activities there, their investigation could be the beginning of the end for Moon's vision of a new Eden on the continent.
Rev. Phillip Schanker, vice president of Moon's organization, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, USA, acknowledged the Brazilian crackdown, but told WorldNetDaily it was politically motivated and that there is no evidence to support the charges. In addition, he said, his organization is responsible for a great deal of philanthropy in the region, such as the donation of dozens of ambulances to local communities.
The church's far-flung empire includes several media properties, including The Washington Times and Insight magazine, the World and I magazine, and more recently, United Press International.
Paradise for believers
Over the last decade, the Family Federation for World Peace, Moon's organization, has bought land in South America that Moon himself has estimated at close to 1.2 million hectares.
Much of that territory includes the sprawling New Hope Farm, a paradisical but largely idle plantation larger than some countries, extending across the Brazilian border into Paraguay and Bolivia. According to Moon, the fertile lands and mineral resources in the region are "big enough to feed one or two hundred million people."
The charges against Moon's organization arose after a former employee, Korean translator Jae Sik Kim, complained to the Labor Ministry late last year that he had been cheated out of his salary. His testimony, which included charges of fraud, sparked a police investigation in December that has rapidly accelerated after years of growing government unease over Moon's activities, culminating in a massive search and seizure operation last week.
According to a Federal Police statement, "although formally established in the country as a philanthropic entity, the (Family Federation for Unification and World Peace) has developed a diversified program, generating ... a high level of doubt about its true objectives."
After seizing bank records in February, federal authorities on May 6 conducted a simultaneous raid on church holdings in 15 cities throughout Brazil.
Following the money
Sergio Messias, the Federal Revenue Service's intelligence chief for the southwest region, believes that the Unification Church is acting fraudulently in Brazil as a commercial entity under the guise of a not-for-profit organization.
The two main elements of the investigation under way involve allegations that taxes should have been paid by the church as a commercial entity, and of money laundering involving currency illegally imported to Brazil. If proven, the allegations could result in the appropriation of the church's real estate, and criminal penalties including jail terms for the group's leaders.
"The Revenue Service believes that the real purpose of Moon's organization, specifically the land acquisitions, in Brazil is to create a tourism complex for commercial purposes," Messias told WND.
In the Brazilian section alone, the international estate extends over 85,000 hectares in Mato Grosso do Sul. According to the Revenue Service's calculations, the group owes taxes on about $30 million to $35 million per year in undeclared income from those lands, plus unpaid rural taxes, since 1996.
"We have discovered that the money used to purchase the land came from the U.S., Japan, and Korea, from either the Unification Church itself or from entities linked to the church," Messias said.
Although the Family Federation for Unification and World Peace is registered in Brazil as a domestic entity, and in the name of Brazilian individuals, Messias said there is solid evidence that those that control the organization and make the decision to purchase land are foreigners.
But under Brazilian law, foreigners are barred from purchasing land 150 kilometers from the national border, which would entitle the court to seize those lands. Authorities are also considering appropriation of the rest of the vast estate, by the Incra land reform agency.
Family Federation's Schanker said he's been in communication with the Brazilian ambassador in the United States trying to work through the allegations "for the past year-and-a-half," insisting the church has "fully cooperated" with Brazilian authorities.
"Starting in September 2000," Schanker said, the Brazilian government "began making requests for information" regarding Moon's operation. "All I can say is we have been cooperative and have given them all the information they have requested."
Local officials "have visited the place several times," he said, including a number of "surprise visits."
He said he knew nothing about the charges that the church owed millions in back taxes to Brazilian tax agencies.
"They looked for drugs, they looked for cross-border connections, they looked for all kinds of things but came up with nothing because we have been open and cooperative," he said.
Schanker notes that the church has a school in the area – which now has 300 students – and has "donated at least 57 ambulances" to local communities. He also says the church has contributed "a large amount of land" for the formation of a national park.
"We've bent over backwards to cooperate," he adds, acknowledging that he personally submitted a five-page report in 2000 to the Brazilian ambassador's office in the U.S., "answering their questions as to who owned the land [and] what was our purpose for it."
Alarmed by the Unification Church's land acquisitions, the Mato Grosso do Sul State Assembly has set up a special inquiry to investigate the organization. That inquiry calculates that some $200 million could have entered the country illegally.
Through 1999, the most recent data from the Revenue Service, only $40 million had passed legally through the Central Bank.
While the amount that may have entered Brazil illegally is still not known, Messias maintains there is clear evidence of money laundering.
"We have heard testimony from various individuals who crossed the border from Bolivia or Paraguay carrying in some cases about $200,000 in currency," Messias said, adding that the amount allegedly laundered in such a way is estimated in the millions of dollars.
In addition the revenue agency found that thousands of visitors to the New Hope Farm each year contributed from $1,000 to $10,000 each over a period of years to take part in the church's "contemplative tourism" offerings, such as 40-day seminars.
"A very conservative estimate would be that about $10 million per year were laundered this way," Messias said.
Investigators claim the decision to buy land was intended to maximize its return from tourism and mineral resources. According to Messias, this suspicion reinforces the hypothesis that they were acquired by a foreign entity for commercial purposes, rather than for philanthropy.
The region, apart from its natural beauty and fertile soil, also contains some of the largest ground reserves of fresh water in the world. Those reserves are expected to multiply in value in the coming decades as fresh water becomes increasingly scarce, Messias said.
According to the Unification Church website, Moon commented on the scarcity of water after a visit to South America, saying: "What do you need most in nature? Water. Without water, nothing will survive. All the food we consume requires water. Whoever controls water will control the future world."
Evidence shows that the group also targeted purchases of land containing some of Brazil's richest bio-diversity.
"We also have evidence that as soon as they discovered that foreigners could purchase land in the Pantanal wetland preserve, the group began conducting real estate evaluations, over-flights, and other activity that we believe shows intent to purchase up to 1 million more hectares," said Messias.
That activity stopped late last year when the investigation intensified.
Police conduct massive sweep
According to a statement by the Federal Police superintendent in Mato Grosso do Sul, Wantuir Brasil Jancini, "the Moon case is of concern, because he acquired huge tracts of land, but we have heard nothing about the economic activity in the area."
In between spiritual meetings, food preparation, cleaning and other activities, an estimated 800 foreign volunteers per month arrive at New Hope Farm to provide volunteer labor in farming, fishing, ranching and other activities such as apiculture and an experimental ostrich farm. That is not to mention the millions reaped through tourism as thousands of church members flock to the region each year to take part in religious teachings and stay in comfortable hotels owned by the church.
The Federal Police said about 50 church-sponsored illegal immigrants have been discovered so far, the fruit of immigration control operations started when the New Hope
Project was begun.
After months of surveillance and subpoenas of the church's bank records, authorities conducted a massive search-and-seizure operation May 6 to collect material evidence in 15 cities in Mato Grosso do Sul and Sao Paulo states. About 70 federal police, acting with 35 revenue inspectors, public prosecutors and state officials began sweeping farms, homes, hotels and offices belonging to church members.
What they found was a Taurus .380 pistol, three laptop computers, 20 CPUs from microcomputers, a mobile satellite telephone, $16,000 in travelers checks and $214 in brand new single notes, hundreds of videos, audio tapes, CD-ROMs and documents written mainly in the Korean language. Brazilian law does not permit unfettered search and seizure, although the protections are not as broad as those in the United States. Police obtained authorization for the raids based on a series of legal protocols.
According to a police spokesman, "the next step is to analyze all these materials for indications of crime, which will then be handed over to federal prosecutors. The process will take some time, because just counting the bank records there are up to 30,000 branches in the country that may have to be investigated."
Messias estimates this aspect of the investigation will take months to resolve.
East of Eden
Immigration authorities say the Unification Church has been officially active in Brazil since 1976, but other sources claim the group arrived as early as 1964. The church also has vast business assets in Uruguay, where it began its South American expansion and is said to be planning a seaport, territory in Argentina and interests in other parts of Latin America besides the international New Hope Farm.
The ambition of the site's planned temple, hotel and university complex could rival the Ziggurat. It is said that the complex was planned to host up to 30,000 followers, or nearly the entire population of two neighboring cities, Jardim and Guia Lopes da Laguna, but had been blocked on violations of building codes. The estimated current capacity at the site is some 3,000 people.
According to Unification Church's leaders in Brazil, such as Neudir Ferabolli, a lawyer for the organization whose own bank records were among those seized, the blitz on the church's holdings represents religious persecution by authorities and individuals, who do not understand the group's philosophy or its purpose in Brazil.
Ferabolli dismisses the charges as little more than religious persecution and the state legislature's investigation as grandstanding during an election year, according to an Associated Press report.
"It's more like they want us to buy them," Ferabolli said of accusations the association was trying to use its money to buy influence with the region's politicians.
Allegations never proven
The presence of the Unification Church has had an uneasy past in this predominately Catholic country. In 1981, the Justice Ministry launched an investigation for supposed "brainwashing" of youths after receiving dozens of letters denouncing the church.
However, allegations of violating child protection laws and holding youths against their parents' will were never proven. But local communities invaded and destroyed some of the church's offices, leading to protests by the group that it had been persecuted for its religious beliefs, but evidence shows the federal government had, in fact, sided with the church.
Classified documents from the 1981 Justice Ministry investigation, published by Brazil's Estado do S?o Paulo newspaper, suggested the military regime at the time supported Moon because "the Unification Church fights openly against international communism ... and therefore is a means to balance the very uneven activities of subversive organizations in our country."
Over the years, both the Catholic Church and Protestant movements have sought to have the Unification Church expelled from Brazil, sending letters to the Justice Ministry about the alleged "depersonalization" of Moon's followers and questioning his "unorthodox" interpretation of Christian theology.
Unification Church in Brazil
The philanthropic acts and land purchases at over market value begun in 1996 ended the discreet profile the church had adopted after the 1981 investigation. Church missionaries have since complained of harassment, such as difficulty with obtaining phone lines in some areas, and "negative" press reports involving alleged drug trafficking, as well as other accusations the group has denied.
In a speech in New York, transcribed on the Unification Church website, Moon said: "Even among the South Americans, no one worked as hard as I have for the sake of South America."
Moon founded his church in 1954 based on his landmark work, "The Divine Principle." His movement seeks to "clarify the meaning of the Bible and all the world's scriptures, paving the way for the world's religions to resolve their internal struggles and become resources for building world peace."
Among the most prominent Moon activities in Brazil was financial support for soccer clubs, a Brazilian national pastime. One such team, the New Hope Sports Center, is a top-ranked club that won third place in the state championship in 2001, putting tiny Jardim on the map in professional sports.
"Although the Unification Movement is investing a substantial amount of money in the soccer team, the team has become an effective tool for opening the hearts of the people," Unification Church missionary Nelson Mira of Jardim wrote in an essay, "True Parents New Soccer Team Wows Brazil."
The group has carried out high-publicity charitable events, such as the donation of several dozen ambulances to local communities, plans to build a soccer stadium and other pledged investments amounting to $100 million, huge open barbecues and other such activities. The group and its ambitious undertakings also create jobs in the region for members and non-members alike, and have indisputably helped the local economy.
However, Brazilian authorities doubt the motives behind the Unification Church's philanthropy. Among the concerns is that the organization intends to expand its social and political influence in Brazil through its practice of arranged marriages between Brazilian and foreign citizens.
There are at least 25 documented cases of foreign church members who travel to Brazil while pregnant, give birth, then take these infant Brazilian citizens out of the country several months later, according to Messias.
This part of Moon's activity in the region is of concern, he says, because it suggests that the Unification Church is busily building what could become in effect an independent religious state in South America.
In Moon's work, "Blessing and Ideal Family," he explains the purpose behind the arranged marriages: "When we can go into every country without restriction because of these international marriages, the walls which were high and strong will be destroyed."
According to Messias, "we began this investigation seeking to determine the situation with the land taxes and whether or not the Family Federation for Unification and World Peace is conducting commercial activities. However, we found that the real problem was not just fiscal, but relates to national security."
Investigators suspect that the Unification Church plans to educate the children born in Brazil under Moon's philosophies for later reintroduction into Brazilian society, where they could assume political posts and other positions of power. Likewise, the land acquisitions are thought to be part of a larger scheme to set up foreign colonies in Brazil that would grow in influence over time and overtake national authority.
"These children could even become president one day," Messias said.
The Revenue Service is not alone in its suspicions. According to recent statements in the press by Defense Minister Geraldo Quintao, the Unification Church and its expansion in South America over the last decade is "not well looked upon."
Moon has reportedly proposed U.N. administration of demilitarized "buffer zones" in areas of intense conflict, specifically along the 38th parallel between the Koreas. According to Moon's vision, the land ceded to create these zones would be compensated by the South American real estate. Brazilian officials allege this is a point of concern for national security.
According to a Moon speech published by his group: "I am working to make a balance between the third world and first world nations, based on nearly 60 island nations, and to connect them with South America. These countries of South America opposed me, but because of my investment they will change. Eventually this will connect to and be part of the U.N. foundation."
Quintao has already met with his Bolivian counterpart to discuss the situation with Moon's land purchase across the border, and both agreed to set up a special intelligence subgroup to monitor the activity on their borders and with Paraguay, where Moon's organization is also active.
"When a foreign individual appears wanting to buy land on both sides of a border, establishing continuity with land on the other side, evidently this is of interest to the intelligence sector and needs to be accompanied with attention," Quintao said.
Schanker says he believes the church is being subjected to unwarranted persecution.
"This seems clearly a case of government interference in the affairs of a religious organization," he said. "There is no commercial intent for that property."
Schanker denied there was anything to charges of money laundering, tax evasion and illegal immigration. "Impossible," he said.
He said the same kind of persecution occurred against Moon in the U.S. in the late 1970's.
The Unification church's teachings "stirred up a lot of investigations and a lot of questions and prejudice," Schanker told WND, adding that the group was subjected to a lot of probing by congressional committees and other federal agencies.
Eventually, Moon was charged and convicted of tax evasion – "for an amount that was beneath the Justice Department – $7,300 over a three-year period," Schanker said, on "an account that had been closed for three years on monies that the church said were public, not private."
Brazilian authorities "have put every kind of stumbling block in our way," he said. "We have tried to give them every bit of access possible. But why do they bring machine guns, break down doors, and create an image as if we're a criminal organization? It's crazy. It's hype."
Schanker called charges that the church was attempting to set up foreign colonies in Brazil "ridiculous."
"We haven't converted anybody," he said. "If anyone would interview people at our school, for example, they'd tell you we're not interested" in those kinds of activities.
Such charges "are absolutely unfounded," he added. "They are just fomenting hysteria for either political or religious reasons."
John Waggoner is a journalist specializing in Latin American affairs.