Moonies plough cash into learning

17th September 1999 at 01:00

The Rev Moon is promising more than pound;1 bn for education, but his offer is being greeted with alarm, reports Gabriella Gamini

THE NEW HOPE school, set amid a barren landscape dotted with low shrubs and muddy rivers in Brazil's remote south-western swamplands, stands oddly against its surroundings. Its factory-style modern look and the updated teaching facilities are an unusual sight in cowboy country.

The new school is at the heart of an ambitious plan recently launched by the Moonie sect to build its vision of an "earthly paradise" in Brazil's impoverished Matto Grosso do Sul state.

The school stands amid large brick buildings inside the 80,000-acre New Hope Ranch.

Initiated by the Rev Sun Myung Moon it is part of a

multi-million-dollar scheme to

resurrect his sect as an engine of Third World development.

With shrinking support in the United States and shunned by his native Korea, millionaire Moon has been focusing his efforts on Brazil since 1996.

He has so far ploughed $25 million (pound;15.5m) into purchasing land in the swamplands and says that he will invest $2 billion over the next eight years to construct a hub of learning for poor farmers at his ranch.

On one of his last visits to the sprawling ranch he claimed that he was going to change "small-minded Brazil" with its poor education system. About 2,000 of his devotees from outside Brazil are helping to plough fields and build his dream of turning the harsh landscape into an agricultural success and educating its people.

The school opened its doors to children of some of the 200 sect members who live permanently on the ranch and the first local converts at the beginning of this year. So far, it caters for 100

primary children.

But by offering free bus travelto and from the nearest town of Jardim and other small communities, as well as better equipment and well-trained teachers, it hopes to attract as many as 600 pupils by the end of the year.

"The school is the first step," said headteacher Gloria Ferneda, a Brazilian from Sao Paulo who has been a sect member for 25 years. "Next on the agenda is the building of a university and a research centre to bring modern agricultural technology to the region."

Ferneda said that the school would soon open its doors to the entire local farming community. But she denied allegations that the school will serve as a means to increase the Moonie flock. "We will not be pushing the religious message," she said. "We will just give a better education."

But, for Brazilian politicians, state educational authorities and the Catholic Church, the school is a worrying sign that the sect is preying on a vulnerable community. The Rev Moon's preachings, a mixture of Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism, are shunned by local priests.

Marcio Campos Monteira, the mayor of Jardim, said: "We need no more schools. But the Moonie school has infrastructure which we cannot dream of offering and therefore people will be tempted." He hopes to use loopholes in local legislation to block attempts by the sect to expand.

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