Where the cultists play

The Globe and Mail (Canada), Feb. 10, 2003
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/
By LYSIANE GAGNON

The bizarre story of the (still invisible) cloned Raelian babies has highlighted the fact that Quebec is a haven for a number of French-born cults.

The Raelian sect was founded by Claude Vorilhon, a failed sportswriter who pretends he was anointed by creatures from another planet called the Elohim. One of them, he says, appeared to him in a Massif Central grotto and took him for a ride in a flying saucer. In the early 1990s, the cult moved its headquarters to Valcourt, a quiet Quebec village, where it opened UFOland and bought a 116-acre field that it called “The Prophet’s garden.”

The Raelians say they are involved in human cloning. According to Brigitte Boisselier, a bishop in the cult who has two PhDs in chemistry and worked for a multinational industrial gases company in Lyon before she started believing in UFOs, the first human clone was born on Boxing Day, followed by a second in the Netherlands and a third in Japan. (No evidence has been offered about what might very well be nothing more than a marketing coup aimed at enlarging the cult’s following.)

French-speaking cults are attracted to Quebec in part because of the province’s generous treatment of religious groups, which are considered non-profit organizations and exempt from paying taxes. True to North America’s general philosophy toward religious movements — and also because of the requirements of the Charter of Rights — Quebec makes no distinction between established religions and cults (which some sociologists earnestly call “new religions”).

In France, where there is firm separation between church and state, only Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims are granted fiscal privileges. Furthermore, the government has drawn up a list of 172 groups it considers to be cults; those deemed the most “dangerous” are subject to special scrutiny. The list, which attracted criticism from civil libertarians, includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists. Some parliamentarians even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to present a law that would have allowed the state to ban groups that are convicted of “mental manipulation.”

This suspicion toward cults is not without reason. In the mid-’90s, a loony doomsday cult — the Order of the Solar Temple — orchestrated mass suicide-killings by fire in France, Switzerland and Quebec in the belief that its members would be transported to a happier planet. A total of 74 people died. The Solar Temple, too, had its headquarters in Quebec. The cult’s “high priests” included middle managers at Hydro-Québec and a Swiss orchestra conductor.

The French leaders of another group, L’Acropole, considered a cult in France, are now in Quebec and have become Canadian citizens. Meantime, the Raelians are seeking charitable-organization status to allow their followers to receive tax deductions.

Socially, as well as legally, Quebec is much more welcoming than France for cults. In Valcourt, which was invaded by foreign journalists and TV crews after the Raelians announced the first birth of a human clone, people are skeptical but highly tolerant of their strange neighbours. The Raelians are no trouble, say the villagers; they keep to themselves and they’re good for local businesses.

Fortunately, none of the cults have gained much ground. According to Statistics Canada, only 1,900 Quebeckers adhere to a “new religion,” and most of them are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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