Are we alone in the universe? A controversial group, led by a man who claims he is in contact with aliens, says it knows the answer and is now spreading that message to Vietnam. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.

It’s 3 o’clock and the aliens are late. But when the bright afternoon sky suddenly turns black, I prepare for contact. To my disappointment, nothing happens, and my session with a group that believes aliens created life on Earth 25,000 years ago comes to an anti-climactic end.

To be fair, Marcel St-Arneault, the ‘guide’ for the Vietnam chapter of the Raelians, as the group calls themselves, never said aliens would actually show themselves. He only said they would give Earth a quick fly-by in their spaceship, just long enough to collect DNA samples from new Raelians. The early monsoon rains over the café near Tan Son Nhat airport were apparently just a coincidence.

It’s the first Sunday of April, which means today is the biggest holiday for Raelians. The group believes it is the anniversary of the day an advanced alien race called the Elohim finally got the recipe right and created the first modern-day humans some 13,000 years ago. The holiday is also one of just four days out of the year when guides (Raelian priests) can perform the group’s most-important ritual: the ‘transmission of the cellular plan’. This transmission, St-Arneault says, occurs when the Elohim fly past Earth to collect DNA samples from willing converts. When this happens, guides around the world have a one-hour window to perform as many transmissions as possible. According to Raelian belief, the DNA will then be stored on an alien super-computer, and if humanity destroys itself the Raelians can be cloned by the Elohim and sent to live on a new planet.

Unfortunately, the only non-member (besides me) in attendance isn’t yet ready to become an official Raelian, so I don’t get to witness the ceremony. Instead, I watch St-Arneault, an affable 58-year-old Frenchman dressed in all white and sporting a ponytail, lead six Vietnamese Raelians in meditation. As his Vietnamese wife translates, he tells everyone to close their eyes, concentrate on their breathing and visualise each cell in their bodies.

To an outsider, the group may seem like just another new-age meditation class, but the Raelian movement is a controversial international organisation that has grabbed headlines around the world. Experts and media outlets often describe the movement as a cult. And now it has landed in Vietnam.

We come in peace
On 13 Dec 1973, Claude Vorilhon, a 27-year-old trade magazine journalist and racecar test driver, was hiking in a volcano park in central France where he claims he had an encounter with a being from another planet.

The extraterrestrial being explained he was a member of the Elohim race, which scientifically engineered humans in their image, as well as all life on earth. The alien also said Vorilhon, who is now called Rael by his followers, was the Elohim’s “last prophet”. Vorilhon says he met all of the former prophets when he travelled to the Elohim home planet.

After returning to Earth, Vorilhon penned the Elhoim’s ‘message’ into a series of books called Intelligent Design, which he used to attract followers. Since the movement began in 1975, it has recruited more than 100,000 members worldwide.

Essentially, the goal of the movement is to prepare mankind for the Elohim’s return. Raelians’ ethics are centred around world peace, non-violence, and they take liberal views on sexuality. Their main mission is to construct an embassy where the Elohim can safely reveal themselves to the world. In Intelligent Design, Vorilhon writes that the Elhoim told him, “What we want is to see if there are enough wise people on Earth. If a sufficiently large number of people follow you, then we will come openly.”

World domination
Now, the movement’s global membership, especially in Asia, is steadily growing. Vorilhon is currently based in Japan, where there is the largest concentration of Raelians, says Brigette Boisselier, a spokesperson for the International Raelian Movement. The movement has also become hugely popular in South Korea, Taiwan and, more recently, China. In Vietnam, there are only eight members so far. And across the border, the Cambodian chapter is petitioning the government to allow the movement to build a $20 million embassy in Phnom Penh, according to a February article in the The Phnom Penh Post.

Boisselier credits the growing number of Raelians in Asia with the increased amount of internet access. Which makes sense, since all of the members of the Vietnam chapter I spoke with said they discovered the movement when researching UFOs online.

“When I was young, I’d always see strange things. I always had questions about UFOs and aliens so I looked them up on the internet,” says Tan, a 53-year-old member who drove 150 kilometres from his small village in Binh Phuoc province for the meeting.

Tan is a professional musician and says he hasn’t told anyone in his village about his interest in the movement yet, because he’s worried how they’ll react. “I will slowly let them know,” he says.

But Anh Ca, a 25-year-old member who has been following Rael’s teachings for three years, isn’t worried about what others think. She even has a rendition of the Raelian symbol — the official version is a swastika inside the Star of David — tattooed on her forearm. Her friends and family, however, aren’t as open to the movement. She says her husband has plans to divorce her because he disagrees with her newfound beliefs. “They tell me I’m crazy,” she says.

Cloning and controversy
This unwavering belief in Vorilhon’s teachings is exactly why Rick Ross, an expert on destructive cults and founder of the US-based Cult Education Institute, says the Raelian Movement is dangerous. Members hang on Vorilhon’s every word, even though no one else has had contact with the Elohim.

“Raelians base their entire belief system upon the fantastic claims of Claude Vorilhon,” Ross wrote in an email. “Raelians accept these fantastic claims, which reflects a rigid mindset largely devoid of critical thinking.”

Ross says he has compiled evidence from families and former members that indicates the movement fits the definition of a destructive cult, the primary characteristics of which are: a group run by a charismatic leader, the use of coercive persuasion (brainwashing) and exploitation.

“Vorilhon is a publicity seeking ego-driven leader and the Raelians are a typical personality-driven authoritarian group,” Ross writes. “In my opinion the Raelians are a fairly classic example of a destructive cult.”

Ross also says he has received reports that Vorilhon has exploited his followers financially, sexually and for free labour.

However, Boisselier, the movement’s spokesperson, says none of this is true. A lot of the negative media attention (of which there is plenty) has also focused on reports of the group’s use of sex, nudity and orgies at gatherings to attract new members. Boisselier says this “bias” is just a natural response to new ideas.

“In general, society is always afraid of something new and it takes a while to absorb things. … Because we’re not idle and not hiding in temples and are out there saying who we are, that’s disturbing to a lot of people,” she says.

Boisselier, herself, has been steeped in controversy over the past decade. As a bishop in the movement, she and Vorilhon founded Clonaid, a human-cloning project. In 2002, Boisselier claimed they had cloned the first ever human child, but refused to give any additional information about it, which led most to believe it was just a publicity stunt. Boisselier, though, tells me they are still cloning humans today.

In March, health officials in the west-African nation of Burkina Faso shut down a ‘pleasure hospital’ run by a charity called Clitoraid. The charity, also run by Boisselier, says it is trying to help reverse female circumcision. However, critics say the project is just a tool to recruit more members and gain financial contributions, as was reported in the online magazine Religion Dispatches.

But the group in Vietnam isn’t concerned with the controversy, and when I ask St-Arneault, the Vietnam guide, why he is so open about the movement’s beliefs when it might scare potential members away, he is unperturbed. “Your article may kill the movement in Vietnam before it gets started,” he says. “But I don’t care, we’ll find another way.”