There is nothing out of the ordinary on the snowy country road that leads into Valcourt with its cedar log fences, silos and bales of hay. That is, until out of nowhere emerges a faded blue sign depicting a flying saucer welcoming visitors to "U.F.O. land."
The sign doesn't mention it, but "U.F.O. land" is also home to the Prophet Raël, half brother to Jesus and the only man alive today who is the product of an encounter between a human mother and a space alien. At least that's what Raëlians believe.
Sound strange? Maybe, but in recent months journalists from around the world have come to this once quiet corner of Quebec from as far away as Australia, Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia to talk to the 56-year-old prophet, a former race car driver and journalist, born in France with the name Claude Vorilhon.
Raël leads a new movement that claims 60,000 adherents worldwide and teaches that man was created by cloning techniques mastered by otherworldly aliens many years ago. Raël says man today is nearly as advanced as those aliens, and ready to perfect the human race with cloning.
"If you can clone a human being, there is no God, and no soul," explained Raël, who folds his perfectly manicured hands like an altar boy and speaks with a soft comforting voice that belies a vision most humans would find horrifying.
"That's our belief," he said. "Right now there is controversy over cloning, but it's a very small thing compared to what's coming. Soon we will be creating scientifically from scratch a completely synthetic human being."
To back up his words, Raëlians founded Clonaid, a private cloning company that appears to have a stronger public relations operation than most Fortune 500 companies.
Raël meets visitors in a plain modern white room decorated with potted plants and plastic furniture covered with lace. He sits beside a bottle of Vichy water and the two books he wrote "Yes to Human Cloning; Eternal Life Thanks to Science" and "The Message Given by Extra-Terrestrials; At Last! Science Replaces Religion" placed upright for the cameras. Raël wears a white gown, a white turtleneck, white socks and white shoes, a uniform that looks a bit like a space suit with padded shoulders.
A medallion engraved with a revolving star is draped around his neck, and his balding head is crowned by a tiny pony tail.
To talk to Raël, a journalist must agree to four demands:
One, to submit a list of questions for approval. Two, to promise to address Raël as "Your Holiness." Three, to agree never to ask the question why he should be called "Your Holiness." And four, to agree not to ask the same question twice.
Journalists readily agree to the conditions because Raël is in the middle of an international controversy. One of his top disciples, Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, the chief executive of Clonaid, claims to have cloned five human babies since Dec. 26.
The names and whereabouts of the babies have not been disclosed, prompting suspicions that fraud is behind the test tubes.
"If someone dares to say it's not true and I would never say that its still a win-win situation for us," Raël acknowledged. "All the world knows about the Raëlian movement now and I am thankful to her for that. Some media experts say we got between $600 million and $700 million worth of coverage and I did nothing."
Raël's other major project is to build an "embassy" in Jerusalem where space aliens can visit and consult with human world leaders an idea that the Israeli government so far has resisted. Raël also espouses nonviolence, avoidance of drugs and hard alcohol, and exuberant love.
"Some people call us a sect or a cult, which is very disrespectful," Raël said, likening the hostility his movement faces to the prejudice against genetically modified foods.
A visit to U.F.O. land is not like a visit to the Vatican, but there is a museum contained in a building with stained glass windows depicting a nude woman with a strand of DNA draped over her shoulder and the Egyptian sphinx. Inside the museum, there is a giant replica of the spaceship that Raël says he viewed in encounters with aliens in December 1973 and October 1975.
"I was happy to go into a U.F.O.," said Raël. Then, displaying his old zest for race cars, he added, "But I expected to see a dashboard and a control panel. I was disappointed."
What did the aliens look like?
"A little more like Japanese than European people, but they are not green," he said. "Their suits are green, yes, but not their skin."