The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Feb. 1, 2003
The instructions are clear. “No drugs,” says Veronique, a Raelian organiser with a French lisp in a gauzy white gown decorated with a wisp of featherdown to signify her status as an “Angel”, “and zat includes tea and coffee.” We are having our induction briefing in what looks like an open-sided shearing shed, beside a sluggish tidal tributary of the Hawkesbury River buried deep in craggy bushland near the village of Wisemans Ferry, 90 minutes’ drive north-west of Sydney.
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Prospects for the weekend brighten considerably when it later becomes clear that just about any other activity consenting adults can engage in is not just OK, but encouraged. That evening I absentmindedly pick an after-dinner mint from a proffered silver salver to discover in the nick of time that it is a condom.
The venue for the Australian Raelian Movement’s annual shindig and “awakening seminar” for newcomers like myself is a vaguely paramilitary campsite – plywood huts, a spartan toilet block and mess hall, with bush treks, rope-climbs, a flying-fox and a flotilla of canoes. The price: $350 for six days including food. It is hired out to groups like the Raelians who cherish their privacy – they can wander around naked knowing their pallid posteriors are unlikely to feature on the news. A crew from The Daily Telegraph is headed off at the wooden suspension bridge that provides the only access, and the only way TV crews could pry would be by helicopter, all of which are luckily engaged covering the bushfires.
Since the announcement on Boxing Day that Clonaid – a company founded by the cult’s guru, His Holiness Rael – had successfully cloned the first human baby, Raelians have been besieged by the media. While the cult welcomes the attention (or, at least, it did until its failure to provide any proof of the cloning birth led to suspicion, scepticism then disbelief) a few of its members who hold respectable jobs fear the ridicule of being outed.
With some justification, you have to say. Raelians believe – at least, they say they believe – in flying saucers, that mankind was created in an alien laboratory, and that a nuclear Armageddon will destroy the world by 2035, with only 144,000 true believers to be saved by being reconstructed (with their memory and personality intact) from their DNA. When Raelians die they have a square centimetre of bone removed from their forehead for safekeeping.
So peculiar, in fact, are their beliefs that they are even too much for laid-back Byron Bay, tolerant host to a multitude of wacky cults, where many Raelians have settled. The “alternative” Byron Bay Echo poured scorn on them, and they were even refused permission to have a stall at the local markets.
“Perhaps it is because we are in favour of genetically modified food,” says the Raelians’ Oceania “guide bishop”, Jean-Francois Aymonier, gloomily. “Also, we favour science, cloning and globalisation.” According to the books on sale at the conference, they believe in a lot more, too.
The cult was founded in 1973 by Claude Vorhilon, a French motoring journalist. From the scant biographical detail provided, he appears to have had an unhappy early life – not knowing his father, raised by relatives, bullied at school, working as a busker then as a motor racing writer until he realised he didn’t like the noise and the smell of the fuel fumes.
About this time he was fortunate enough to encounter a flying saucer in an extinct volcano at Puy de Lassolas in central France. A replica of this vehicle is on display at Centre UFOland, a cult theme park which has been built on an 80-hectare site near Rael’s headquarters in the town of Valcourt, in the boondocks of Quebec, Canada.
According to the texts, a bald alien 1.2metres tall with a goatee beard, almond-shaped eyes, a greenish skin and a halo, got out of the spacecraft. He introduced himself to Rael as Yahweh (God to the Hebrews) and turned out to be Rael’s father.
After dictating a new version of the Old Testament over six days (Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by nuclear weapons, Noah taking DNA from all the animals into a spaceship/ark, etc) in which the race of aliens – who call themselves the Elohim – created humankind by cloning a scant 25,000 years ago, Yahweh took Vorhilon at seven times the speed of light to the Elohim’s home, the “planet of the wise”.
Here Vorhilon had a wonderful time flying around with the aid of gravity-defying belts, met Moses, Buddha, Muhammad and his (Rael’s) long-lost brother, Jesus, was given the gift of healing, had sex with six perfectly formed biological robots (a brunette, a redhead, a blonde etc) who were “submissive to all my desires”, saw his dead mother cloned from a photograph, was appointed the Elohim’s ambassador to Earth and on his return adopted the name Rael and began proselytising as “the last prophet”.
Thirty years later, the Raelians claim to have 55,000 members worldwide, though the figure – like almost everything else about the cult – has to be treated with a great deal of suspicion. In books, magazines and on videotapes, the largest gatherings appear to involve no more than 200 or so, and then only when the Raelians adopt a popular cause such as a rally in Montreal at which they invited Catholics to publicly renounce their faith in protest at priestly pedophilia.
The Raelians’ finances, which are not publicly available, are now held in a secret international bank account after two Swiss banks terminated their accounts following complaints from other customers. The cult claims to have raised $US12 million ($20 million) for its main mission on Earth, which is to build an embassy (shaped just like a convoluted “crop circle” which once appeared in a Wiltshire corn field) on four square kilometres of land in Jerusalem. Successive Israeli governments have refused to hand over land for the project.
To this end, Raelians are supposed to give up to 11 per cent of their net income to the cult, and to gift their estates before death (to avoid challenges to the will) to local Raelian leaders. However, as many local Raelians are unemployed, and one can join for a donation of as little as $1, Australia’s contribution is likely to be minimal.
AYMONIER, the Raelian Bishop of Oceania for the past decade, is a tall, handsome, well-built French engineer with nipple-length black hair who appears on stage dressed in white and with the Raelian symbol dangling around his neck. It used to be a Star of David with a swastika in the middle, but this was changed to something more abstract after it was discovered it might give offence to Jews.
Aymonier says he takes no money from the cult and supports himself by constructing internet websites. “We have no property, we have no temple, we have no venue, we draw no salary,” he says – and NSW Land Titles Office records confirm no property recorded in the names of the cult or its known leaders.
In fact, Aymonier, judging by attendance at last month’s seminar, appears to have had an uphill task recruiting disciples. He claims to have 500 members in Australia, but in spite of the massive publicity sparked by the human cloning announcement (the Raelians’ website took 250,000 hits in one day, four times more than it received in the previous year) only about 60 people turned up, a dozen of whom are newcomers.
There is the usual collection of misfits and lonely, damaged souls, single mothers (several brought their children) and the sort of people who attend “mind, body and spirit” shows, where they are recruited to the cause.
Jason from Shepparton, a man in his 30s with a long brown ponytail and tattoos of pistols loaded with human babies on his chest, jumps up to introduce himself to the gathering. He says he has had a variety of jobs including coalminer and prostitute, and since discovering Rael has been able to give up antidepressants.
Bob from Brisbane says it was the pictures of flying saucers that convinced him Rael was a true prophet. “I have always had UFOs in my life, so has my mother,” he says. “When I saw [the illustration] I thought, “Bingo – I know these spacecraft, they have been following me.”‘
Gypsy, a middle-aged women with scarlet hair, appears particularly troubled, and twice rushes from the hall followed by the sound of shouting and vomiting. Aymonier explains that she is seriously ill, and has had her children taken away from her “because she is a Raelian”.
This worrying thread of persecutionism runs through proceedings. As well as Catholics, Jews are high on the hate list (perhaps because of the refusal to allow the extraterrestrial embassy in Israel) and there is an increasingly apocalyptic tone to cult prophecies. “The end of the world by nuclear war is near,” preaches Rael. “They [the Elohim] will come to save the just.”
But not all are obvious nutters. At dinner (thankfully, this being a French cult, a glass of red wine is permitted, which does a little to mediate the awfulness of a grey roast and a lentil meatloaf) I sit next to Alek, a Raelian for 10 years who bears a striking resemblance to the movie star Alan Alda (M*A*S*H) and says he is an Adelaide gastroenterologist.
Karen, a raven-haired Englishwoman who belts out a mean version of the Raelian anthem (“I’m a Raelian, yeh, yeh”), had been in Australia for more than 20 years without seeing a kangaroo until she spotted one near the camp. But she has had no trouble spotting flying saucers hovering over Bondi -“just the common or garden cone-shaped type, flashing red and white lights, the usual”.
I finally think I have found someone “normal” when Brian, a pest controller from Petersham with a beer belly and a forage cap, admits he spent the day sinking schooners in the Wisemans Ferry pub when he was supposed to be fasting. Well, it was 43 degrees out there.
Confessing that I was a reporter, I asked him how he got involved with the Raelians, and he said he was in a park in Santiago, the Chilean capital, and met a man with a Raelian pendant. Next thing, they had taken him up a mountain, placed one wet hand on his forehead and another on the back of his head, and beamed his DNA up to the Elohim, who were hovering in the sky in their mothership. It was the Raelian version of baptism, known as “transmission”.
“If they ever start throwing atomic nukes about, I’m out of here,” he said – the Elohim would re-create him from his DNA, and take him to their planet where he would spend the rest of eternity flying around with anti-gravity belts, discussing pest control with Buddha, and enjoying the attentions of compliant female robots.
That night we have our introduction to the sensual side of the Raelians – everyone has to be blindfolded, and grope their way around the dance floor to the strains of New Age music until they bump into someone else, whereupon both parties are supposed to caress each other.
Unfortunately, the guides’ sixth sense (they refrain from shaving or cutting their hair so as not to inhibit their extra-sensory organs) guides them unerringly to the handful of good-looking women, leaving the rest of us to be pursued by lumbering matrons in size 20 hospital gowns.
Not for the first time, I wonder whether the wool is being pulled over our eyes in more ways than one.
Many of the women are wearing the white feathers of the “Angels”, Raelians who have agreed to support the cloning program by offering their eggs for implantation, or their bodies as surrogate mothers. According to Rael, there are 2000 people on the waiting list prepared to pay $US200,000 each to have themselves cloned.
There is an awful lot of talking about sex. We watch videotapes of pack-raping dolphins, homosexual elephants and bonobo apes bonking, and a speech by Rael, a 56-year-old man who affects white Captain Kirk-style suits and a topknot, who boasts: “My wife, she likes sex only once a month, but I like it more often,” before bursting into a big smile, “sank-you, sank-you, Raelian girls.”
Aymonier is also no slouch in the sexual stakes. The two best-looking women in the group are, respectively, his current mistress and his ex. “You must smile,” he counsels, displaying a set of teeth like a marble xylophone. “How many girls have I got with my smile? I am irresistible.”
But he is keen to debunk other accusations that have been levelled at the Raelians. “We have been accused of having sex orgies, of pedophilia [this refers to the jailing of two Raelians in France for the ‘corruption of minors’], of drug-dealing, of arms dealing. We are persecuted like the Jews before World War II; we are manipulated by the media, like the first Christians.”
I steal away into the night, and – like most of the newcomers – check out the day before my “awakening” is complete.
There are some things in life for which it just isn’t worth giving up a decent cup of coffee.