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Beleaguered 'Church' Planned Tropical Vacation

Leaders of the Greater Ministries International Church are facing federal fraud and money laundering charges.

How do you build a religious paradise?

Well, you might want to start out by buying a tropical island, then suspending the laws of the country it once belonged to. Bring in 1,000 Claymore mines, tear gas grenades, .50-caliber machine guns and armor-piercing ammunition.

Don't forget the stun guns, shotguns, handguns and flak jackets. Buy 1,000 M-79 propelled grenades. And then ship in about 30 Filipinos and give them all the menial jobs needed to support the enterprise.

That, at least, was the apparent vision of the people who ran Greater Ministries International Church, a Tampa-based outfit whose leaders are facing federal fraud and money laundering charges.

Prosecutors say that the "church," which is linked to extremist individuals and ideology, promised those who "donated" money that they would get back double their investment within 17 months.

In fact, the prosecutors allege in a case that went to trial in October, it was a $100 million-plus Ponzi scheme, in which money from later investors was used to pay off earlier ones — guaranteeing ultimate collapse.

Greater Ministries' island plans were unearthed in August, when court-appointed receivers seized its headquarters building. Undated plans for "Greaterlands," a Vatican-like entity which was to be legally independent of its host country, were found inside the desk of Greater founder Gerald Payne.

Documents showed Greater officials had considered at least three sites, and had apparently written to the president of Honduras.

In Tampa, Greater supporters — ignoring the complaints of hundreds who lost their money — protested the prosecution. "Is this Freedom?" their signs asked. "Is your Church next?"

Probably not, unless it's engaged in a scam of truly biblical proportions.