JARDIM, Brazil -- As far as the eye can see, there is almost nothing here but pasture, with the distant line of the horizon broken only by tall anthills and an occasional tree. But the Rev. Sun Myung Moon envisions this remote and sparsely populated corner of Brazil as what he calls "a kingdom of heaven on earth, a new Garden of Eden."
Moon, the 78-year-old founder of the Unification Church, who has been rebuffed in the United States and is facing financial trouble in his native South Korea, is seeking to reinvent himself here in the South American heartland.Through a venture he calls New Hope East Garden, Moon has bought thousands of acres of pasture land and spent some $30 million, according to the project's manager, in hope of building a spiritual and business empire here that is to include investments in agriculture, industry and tourism, as well as a university.
Such investment was at first welcomed in the neediest part of Mato Grosso do Sul, a state whose own governor describes it as a land of "2 million people and 22 million cows." But increasingly, Moon's visible presence here is generating the same sort of opposition and suspicion that has followed him elsewhere around the world during a long career as the self-proclaimed "true father" and successor to Jesus Christ.
"No one knows what he's up to out there, what are the objectives of his investments or the origins of his money," the governor, Jose Orcirio Miranda dos Santos, said in an interview. "This has become an issue of national security, and I think an investigation is needed."
Moon's initial warm reception has quickly chilled, with charges in the news media and from local church officials that the sect is involved in improper activities. In October, local Roman Catholic and Protestant churches jointly issued an open letter accusing Moon of 10 forms of heresy, urging "the people of God to keep their distance from the Unification sect" and calling on local officials to "have the courage to remove this danger."
"More than a sect, this is a business that hides behind the facade of religion in order to make money," said Monsignor Vitorio Pavanello, the Roman Catholic bishop of Campo Grande, the state capital. "He is trying to build an empire by buying everything in sight."
But Moon's associates offer a different explanation.
"It is our goal and desire to do something great for this region," said Cesar Zaduski, a former president of the Unification Church in Brazil and the general manager of the New Hope project. "Rev. Moon has a lot of companies around the world, more than 300, and his intention is to bring some of them here so that this region can get the benefit of development and First World know-how and technology."
Zaduski said Moon was prepared to commit much more money to make the New Hope venture viable. The objective, he said, is to produce fish, exotic meats, fruit and wood for commercial markets there and abroad and to turn this area into a leading eco-tourism center within a few years.
Moon's representatives here said that their leader first visited the region five years ago on a fishing trip and was impressed by its wide-open spaces and enormous variety of wildlife.
Since then, his movement has bought 220 square miles of farmland in Mato Grosso do Sul and a 310-square-mile parcel near Fuerte Olimpo on the Paraguayan side of the nearby border, as well as hotels and other businesses.
Moon's big push in this largely undeveloped corner of Brazil comes as the business conglomerate he controls in South Korea has nearly collapsed. Because of the economic crisis that swept across East Asia beginning in 1996, the debt of his Tong Il Group soared to more than $1.2 billion. Five of its 17 companies were forced into receivership last year, and an automobile manufacturing project in China has also failed.
His diverse enterprises in the United States appear to be in better shape. Those include a newspaper, The Washington Times, as well as Bridgeport University in Connecticut, a recording studio and travel agency in New York, and a cable network, the Nostalgia Channel. But Moon has indicated recently that he is disenchanted with the country that has been his main base of operations since the 1970s.
"America doesn't have anywhere to go now," he said in a speech in New York last year. "The country that represents Satan's harvest is America, the kingdom of extreme individuality, of free sex."
Moon's critics say that his view is growing harsher because of the decline of his influence in the United States, where he was imprisoned for a year after being convicted of tax evasion in 1982, and where he has been the subject of embarrassing books and news reports that his son and heir was addicted to cocaine and abused his wife.
While he was once believed to have about 30,000 followers in the United States, the current number of church members is believed to be about one-tenth that number.