Near-Death Experience

Police step in as acolytes of a German psychologist plan a space ride–or suicide–on a Spanish island

One sector of the city of Santa Cruz, capital of the Spanish island of Tenerife, is called el barrio de la Salud, meaning the healthy suburb. The local name proved a misnomer for a large group of visitors to the holiday resort last week, at least in the sense of mental health. Thirty-two Germans and one Spanish woman believed they were about to be lifted from Earth by a spaceship. Failing that, they were to commit group suicide. Their hopes were dashed but their lives saved when police entered a block of apartments in the suburb and detained them until the scheduled arrival of the spacecraft had passed.

The group’s leader, Heide Fittkau-Garthe, 57, a doctor of psychology with an office in Hamburg and a part-time resident of Tenerife for many years, was held for questioning. Her followers were required to remain on the island.

First reports said the group was a branch of the Solar Temple sect, which has arranged group suicides in France, Switzerland and Canada. But experts in both Spain and Germany say the group appears to be independent and based on faith in Fittkau-Garthe. Says Pepe Rodriguez, who runs a Barcelona-based anti-sect organization called EMAAPS, an acronym for Multidisciplinary Team for Assessment of and Help with Sect Problems: “It appears to be a group based on this woman. The structure, ritual and what’s known of its beliefs don’t indicate any link with the Solar Temple. Sects go through phases, such as oriental, religious, social, fundamentalist. In vogue now are groups thinking that after suicide they will board a spacecraft and be saved from the end of the world.” His view is supported by Renate Rennebach, a member of the German Bundestag’s commission investigating so-called sects, who says there appears to be no connection to the Solar Templars.

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As with another apocalyptic group, Heaven’s Gate–39 of whose members took their lives in the U.S. last March in the belief that a UFO would lift them to a “next level”–the followers of Fittkau-Garthe are mainly well educated. Several have university degrees. Most are residents of Hamburg. The adults are aged from 20 to 60, and the group includes four girls and a boy aged 6 to 12.

The Canary Islands delegate for Spain’s central government, Antonio Lopez, said the followers are being regarded as “victims trapped in a process” and do not face charges. They were all maintaining silence last week, their chief concern being for the welfare of Fittkau-Garthe. It was unclear whether she would face charges.

Police had been watching the block of apartments in Santa Cruz for several days after the brother of a Munich-based member of the group alerted police about the planned mass suicide. The Spanish police are believed to have seized bottles of an unidentified liquid.

The site where the spacecraft was expected to land is on the slopes of Mount Teide, at 3,718 m the highest landmark in Spain. The group’s plan last Thursday was to drive most of the way in Jeeps, then walk to an appointed spot. Pepe Rodriguez, who has written seven books on sects, says he doubts that all of them would have died if no UFO had touched down at 8 p.m. “In other cases what has happened is that the group leader pretends to have received a last-minute message from the extraterrestrials saying the world has been given a new deadline,” he said. “Or a suicide ritual would have begun, and, as always happens, some acolytes would have changed their minds. Sometimes those who do so are executed, but we’ve had no indication in this case of execution plans.” Certainly in the case of other apocalyptic sects some of the deaths are murders; among the victims of the 1994 Swiss Solar Temple group “suicide” some had as many as eight bullet wounds in the head.

How a group of comfortably-off, educated people could become so seduced by Fittkau-Garthe that they would travel–on round-trip air tickets–to the Canary Islands to await a spaceship on the sides of a dormant volcano may never be known. Their figurehead’s voice could still be heard late last week on the answering machine at her Psychological Training Center in Hamburg. In a business-like but friendly tone Fittkau-Garthe invites callers to “leave a message of unlimited length.”

The Berlin-born psychologist married Bernd Fittkau, a professor of psychology. They had a son, now aged 20. The couple divorced 13 years ago after Heide had been to India in the mid-1980s and became a follower of Brahma Kumari, a group which promotes celibacy, veganism and Raja Yoga. According to Hansjorg Hemminger, co-author of a book on sects, Second-Hand Soul, Fittkau-Garthe set up the group centered on her in 1993, calling herself “The Source.” Her devout followers accepted her creed that the world faced destruction by an “earth-axis leap.” Last week they were waiting in Tenerife to be allowed to return to Germany to contemplate a near-fatal leap in credibility.

–With reporting by Ursula Sautter/Bonn

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 19, 1998.
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