Brazil priest under investigation over accusations pilgrim donations were misused

BRASILIA, Aug 24 (Reuters) - A popular priest is being investigated by prosecutors over accusations he diverted donations at Brazil's third largest pilgrimage site into real estate investments, including a ranch and a luxury beach house, authorities said.

The Roman Catholic Church suspended Father Robson Oliveira on Sunday, pending the investigation by prosecutors looking into money laundering, fraud, tax evasion and organized crime charges involving up to 1.7 billion reais ($300 million) over a decade.

Oliveira has around 3.9 million followers on Facebook and had been running the Basilica of the Eternal Father in Trindade, a colonial town just outside the city of Goiania in the central state of Goias.

More than a million people flock to the shrine each year and take part in celebrations that feature a procession of ox carts.

Prosecutors said they suspect Oliveira, aged 46, was skimming off part of the 20 million reais ($3.6 million) in donations the basilica receives on average each month and investing the proceeds through front-men associates. They said they had contacted Vatican officials about the case.

Police raided properties linked to Oliveira on Friday. The raids were code-named Operation Merchants, from the biblical passage of Jesus Christ driving merchants from the temple. One house they raided had a jacuzzi, a heated pool and baths made of marble, they said at a news conference on Friday.

In a video posted on Facebook, the priest said he was confident his innocence would be established very quickly and the investigation would confirm that "all the money donated to the Eternal Father was used for evangelization."

"I ask you to pray that all is resolved quickly," he asked his followers.

($1 = 5.5910 reais)

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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