Oddball Raelians take a wild swing at Catholic church

The Globe and Mail (Canada), Oct. 15, 2002

MONTREAL — As long as they stuck to wacky topics such as cloning humans and communing with little green men in spaceships, the Quebec sect known as the

Even in a province that has largely abandoned churchgoing and happily indulged the offbeat, the latest campaign has been hard to swallow.

“When you start attacking other people’s symbols, you’re bound to inflame passions,” Laval University sociologist Simon Langlois said.

Until now, most Quebeckers viewed the Raelians as an amusing but benign bunch who liked to practise free love. The group operates a theme park called UFOland in Quebec’s Eastern Townships; their leader is a former would-be racing-car driver known as Rael whose futuristic white outfits make him look like a barber on Star Trek.

The group has always had a flair for marketing, but the imagery in its latest campaign has brought only unflattering comparisons with the Ku Klux Klan.

The Quebec Assembly of Bishops called the sect’s efforts an “incitement to hatred.” Commentators are enraged.

“The sect has slipped into troubled waters. It has become offensive,” Jean-Marc Beaudoin wrote in a column in Le Nouvelliste of Trois-Rivières, where the Raelians recently stopped. Their campaign sends a “brutal message” to young people, he wrote.

“It’s a warlike gesture, a crusade.”

Sylvie Fortin of the CEGEP François-Xavier Garneau, a college targeted briefly by the Raelians last week, said the campaign left her incredulous.

“They’re using schools to spread propaganda. Schools have ceased being places for teaching and become like big shopping malls where you throw everything together. It’s completely inappropriate.”

Efforts by school boards to get Raelians to keep their distance have so far failed. The Chemin-du-Roy board in Trois-Rivières argued that the group would harass its teenage students. But Superior Court Judge Michel Richard concluded that the Raelians’ rights were protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Raelians have always had a genius for publicity — they distributed free condoms outside high schools in the early 1990s — and the latest campaign seems to be another coup. The controversial school visits have tended to attract lots of security officers, a few students and a large contingent of journalists.

Rael, a Frenchman whose real name is Claude Vorilhon, has drawn the spotlight since he began spreading word that an olive-skinned extraterrestrial emerged from a spaceship in 1973 and delivered the news: Earthlings had been created by aliens in a lab 25,000 years ago.

Today, the group says its following has mushroomed to 50,000 people in 84 countries, interest fuelled in no small part by the group’s belief in nude meditation.

The sect’s profile began to rise in the late 1990s, after Dolly the sheep was created and the cloning debate took off. In 1998, Rael announced that aliens would be boarding their UFOs and heading to Earth, and young female followers would volunteer as hostesses and sexual mates.

With a promise to turn out a cloned human being, the Raelians became playersin one of the most serious and explosive debates around. Rael himself was invited to testify before the U.S. Congress.

He showed up with his hair tied up in a knot — a coif he says improves communication with his alien buddies.

The crusade against the Roman Catholic Church grew out of the group’s opposition to traditional religions. After Sept. 11, Rael declared monotheism the “root of evil.” The sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church in the United States spurred the group to step up its antichurch campaign.

No one is quite sure how the de-baptizing efforts will work with today’s students, already subjected to the marketing muscle of Nike and Gap. Ms. Fortin said students these days are far more concerned about globalization than religion.

Typical is Gabriel Talbot-Lachance, who picked up one of the Raelians’ pamphlets at his college in Quebec City. The 21-year-old student was baptized and now considers himself an atheist. Part of him is curious about the Raelians, although he finds them a bit of a chuckle, he acknowleged.

Still, going through de-baptism does not seem worth the effort, he said. And besides, he added, “I wouldn’t want to hurt my grandparents’ feelings.”

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)