AYEAR-and-a-half ago, authorities in Argentina and Uruguay thought their country's Catholic bishops were overreacting when they issued warnings about the growth in the region of the controversial “Church of the Unification” founded by Korean leader Sun Myung Moon.
Both episcopates had responded to an alert from the Latin American Bishops’ Council (CELAM) in early 1995. CELAM also called on Father Leonidas Ortiz Lozada, a Colombian priest who is a specialist in sects to analyze Moon's doctrine and strategy.
The conclusion of Father Ortiz's report, distributed by CELAM to all the episcopates in Latin America, was that Moon was targeting Latin America, especially the southern region, as a new area of expansion for the sect.
The surprising presence of former U.S. President George Bush at the inauguration of Moon's daily newspaper Noticias del Mundo—a Spanish sisterpublication of The Washington Times— has been the latest in a series of moves that seem to validate Father Ortiz's suspicions.
The sect first established a presence in Latin America 15 years ago, but Moon put down firmer roots in 1994, when, in a single move, he purchased the Uruguayan daily Ultimas Noticias, a chain of hotels and a bank. The move made the sect one of the most powerful economic groups in small and politically stable Uruguay. Afew months later, the sect added a ship-building company to its growing empire.
Moon followed the Uruguay purchases by moving to investment-starved Argentina, where he was welcomed in person by President Carlos Menem. The Korean leader purchased a huge ranch in the northern province of Corrientes, announcing that he intended to make it his permanent residence.
When he revealed plans for further heavy investments, including the first daily newspaper to be published for all of South America, several Argentinean Catholic groups, already alerted by CELAM's warning, started monitoring Moon's operations more closely. Moon then decided to move his principal base back to Montevideo—Uruguay's capital city—where religious freedom legislation gives him more room for maneuvering.
Moon's religious aims are tied to political, economic and cultural goals, according to Father Ortiz. “Moon believes that he is the new Messiah, chosen by God to fulfill Christ's alleged failure to bring all humanity together under one single religion…. Moon envisions the world unified under one single family, in which he and his wife will be recognized as the divine parents,” the Colombian priest explained.
Moon's ‘front' organizations have not escaped controversy.
Moon has created several “front” organizations to foster this “single family” in Latin America. The Asociacion para la Unidad Latinoamericana—Association for Latin American Unity (AULA)—and the Confederacion de Asociaciones para la Unidad de las Sociedades de America—Confederation of Associations for the Unity of Societies in America (CAUSA)—are among them. These associations invite influential Latin American politicians, news paper editors, diplomats and high ranking army officers to three- or four-day gatherings in luxurious hotels in Uruguay or Argentina, supposedly to discuss Latin American unity. Huge photographs of AULA and CAUSA leaders with Pope John Paul II, taken during a general audience in December 1985, are regularly displayed at the gatherings.
But Moon's “front” organizations have not escaped controversy. When they were starting up in the early 90s, CAUSAmembers were accused by local human rights organizations of involvement in the illegal arms trade and of supporting anti-democracy factions among the armed forces of Chile, Argentina and Paraguay.
Last August, Mexican Congressman Carlos Guzman, president of the small Partido Autentico de la Revolucion Mexicana (Authentic Party of the Mexican Revolution), sparked new controversy when he denounced the sect following Moon's offer to “buy” his party. The Korean leader ensured Guzman of a heightened presence for his party in Mexico, which Moon sees as a prime region for expansion.
At a meeting intended to discuss the region's unity that drew parliamentary representatives from different Latin American countries, Moon delegates offered to pay the expenses of small political parties in exchange for decision-making power within the organizations, according to Guzman.
“I don't know how many of them have accepted, but we consider the proposition an intolerable intervention of a foreign power in Mexican politics,” he said.
The latest controversy in Montevideo involving the “Church of the Unification”—also known as “The Church of the Holy Spirit” in Latin American countries—occurred when another of Moon's front organizations, the Federacion de Familias para la Paz Mundial (Federation of Families for World Peace) sponsored a meeting of 600 female leaders of pro-family organizations in mid-November, the majority of whom were unaware of the sect's involvement.
Forty-two of the participants signed a letter denouncing “pressure and manipulation” and requested that a Catholic priest make it public after the women had left Montevideo. The letter said that “we have been deceived and manipulated in an open attempt to indoctrinate us with Moon's ideas.”
The document sparked the first official reaction against Moon, both from the Uruguayan government and the country's Church. A government spokesman said politely that “we expect the followers of the ‘Church of the Unification’ to behave according to our laws, which are fully respectful of personal freedom.”
In less measured tones, Uruguayan Catholic bishops issued a public statement, charging that the Church of the Unification and all its front organizations “are not neutral in religious matters and cannot be considered a Christian faith for inclusion in ecumenical dialogue…. Instead, they deny our Christian faith, because all their claims of universal love and unity are based exclusively on the peculiar ideas of Mr. Moon, who claims to be the true Messiah.” They also warned that Moon “uses economic power to manipulate the real needs of the people, especially the young who are affected by poverty, unemployment, family disintegration and lack of ideals.”
Defying the bishops’ criticism, Moon has made it clear that Uruguay, a country with a small economy and less pronounced Catholic influence, has become his stronghold in Latin America. In fact, just a week after the release of the bishops’ document, Moon launched a training program for 4,200 Japanese missionary women who literally invaded Montevideo, a city of a little more than 1 million inhabitants.
The training program, which was also inaugurated by former President Bush, was intended to prepare the Japanese missionaries to evangelize throughout the Americas—including in the United States and Canada. The goal of the missionaries will be to persuade people to belong to the “big family” of the “new Messiah,”—Sun Myung Moon.
Alejandro Bermudez is based in Lima, Peru