By Fabio Teixeira
RIO DE JANEIRO, March 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An ongoing investigation into a religious cult in Brazil has found 79 people in slavery-like conditions on a farm, federal authorities said on Friday.
The farm is run by Igreja Adventista Remanescente de Laodiceia, a religious community of about 300 people in Brasilia, the country's capital.
The laborers, found working in dangerous conditions for little to no pay, are members of the cult and have not asked for help.
"We observed that there is strong psychological coercion. (The followers) believe they work for their own spiritual salvation," Rodrigo Ramos, a labor inspector, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"They think the world is nearing its end, and that they can be saved (by staying) in this community."
Brazilian officials have been cracking down on cults suspected of keeping workers in slavery-like conditions. Last year, authorities found 565 suspected slaves laboring for a single religious organization.
The fact that some of these suspected slaves will not accept rescue is a major difficulty public prosecutors face in stopping the abuse.
Attempts to contact Igreja Adventista Remanescente de Laodiceia were unsuccessful.
According to Ramos, the leaders of the Brasilia cult were enriching themselves off the work done by their followers.
People sold bread, crops, books and sheets - all made within the community - but received less than the minimum wage for their labor.
What money the workers did make flowed back to the church, as followers had to pay for food, clothing, and their lodgings.
Some of the machinery employed put workers lives at risk, said officials.
Workers slept in makeshift tents or in other degrading conditions, said the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office in an official statement.
A room housing dangerous pesticides was separated from an area where workers slept by a improvised wall made of cardboard.
"We could smell the products (from where workers slept)," said Ramos.
Leaders of the church kept records on their followers.
State officials seized ledgers and documents containing payments and expenditures for each person who was part of the church.
The leaders will be charged for keeping workers in slavery-like conditions and will also have to pay compensation to those harmed by their practices if found guilty, said Ramos.
While Brazilian authorities have no legal way to force people to leave the compound since it is on private property, workshops and other commercial enterprises on the farm were shut down.
Last December, two women were rescued from Igreja Adventista Remanescente de Laodiceia, after being kept imprisoned and made to do domestic labor, local police said at the time.
Police then received new reports of abuses that triggered the current operation.
"It bears emphasizing that the operation does not mean to interfere in the religious beliefs of any citizen. But it is a duty of the state to act positively so that workers have their fundamental rights secured," the prosecutor's office said. (Reporting by Fabio Teixeira; Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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