Rael sect seeks converts in Japan

Narita, Japan - Hundreds were gathering here Monday to study the teachings of the controversial Rael sect, which believes extraterrestrials created Earth, as the group sought to expand its largest base of Japan.

The sect founded in France is best known for saying it cloned a human being in 2002, although it has never produced any evidence to back up its claims.

About 600 followers, including new members, signed up to take part in a week-long Asia seminar of the Rael movement that opened Sunday at a hotel in Narita near Tokyo, said Hideaki Numakura, a spokesman for the group in Japan.

The group's leader Rael, a Frenchman whose name is Claude Vorilhon, was due to attend but cancelled because of illness and is recovering in Switzerland, group members said.

Rael, a former auto journalist, started the movement in the 1970s when he said aliens told him that they created humanity. He preaches that human beings should be able to control their own genetic makeup.

In the session here, the sect is teaching followers to attain happiness through controlling the brain -- an exercise purportedly similar to Buddhist monks' meditation.

"Do not neglect gardening your neural connection, pulling out the bad weeds. If you do, you will become happy," Michio Ito, the group's Japanese leader, said as he led a three-minute session.

The group says it has 50,000 followers worldwide. Some 10,000 of them are in Asia, including 6,000 in Japan -- which has more members than any other country, with France coming second.

Ito said the Japanese are more receptive to the Rael movement because of the openness to different religions in Japan, where most people mix Buddhist and Shinto beliefs.

"Japanese don't really believe in a God; they tend to believe more in scientific facts and evidence so that's why (the movement) is more accepted here than elsewhere where there is already a religion," Ito said.

"Japanese are also more open to things like brain-training," he said.

New members are asked to pay seven percent of their salary to the group.

Besides Japan, the meditation classes included followers from other parts of Asia including South Korea, China, Thailand, Mongolia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, group members said.

Some of the new followers said they learned about the Rael movement through the Internet including social network services like Mixi, a Japanese website similar to MySpace.

"I have always been fascinated by the way life is precisely designed. Only advanced intelligent beings could have done this," said Rael member Yoshihisa Naruse, an assistant professor of anatomy at the Meiji University of Oriental Medicine.