Montreal -- They advocate free love, believe humans were created by extraterrestrials and organize conferences on the benefits of masturbation.
The Raelians cannot be accused of pushing a conventional agenda. Still, they remained in relative obscurity around the globe until they pledged to clone a human being.
Observers of the Quebec-based movement are debating whether the world should take seriously its claim about the imminent birth of a human clone.
"I'm very skeptical," said Alain Bouchard, a Laval University professor who has monitored the Raelians for 15 years. "They're not people who have ever really worked in genetics."
Mike Kropveld, executive director of Info-Cult in Montreal, said the Raelians' claim would have to be backed by powerful evidence. "In science, the more extraordinary the claim, the more the need for extraordinary proof. We have no idea who's actually working on this for them. Most people are skeptical that they're even really involved in anything."
But Susan Palmer, a professor of religious studies at Dawson College in Montreal and author of a forthcoming book on the Raelians, said the group has the money, motivation and about 50 women who have been willing to act as surrogate mothers.
Best of all to the Raelians, the birth of a cloned baby would confirm their belief that extraterrestrials will return to Earth in 2035.
"They're re-enacting their creation myths," she said. "If human beings can clone people, then it would be equal to the extraterrestrials. It's like the second coming of Jesus for Christians, an apocalyptic revelation."
True or not, the claim secures the Raelians' reputation as masters at exploiting a high-profile issue to gain publicity.
In the early 1990s, in response to a Quebec decision against condom machines in high schools, the Raelians passed out condoms to students from a van decorated with spaceships.
After the sex-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, they urged people to renounce their Catholic faith and took a cross-burning campaign to several Quebec high schools.
According to the Raelians, their movement began in 1973 when Claude Vorilhon, the editor of a small racing-car magazine, went hiking along a volcano in France and encountered a flying saucer. Inside, a short, green-skinned extra-terrestrial explained that humanity had been created through DNA technology.
The extraterrestrials took Mr. Vorilhon, who now calls himself Rael, to their planet, where female robots attended to all his needs. There he met Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Moses, whom he learned had been sent by the aliens to Earth. Rael was the last on this exclusive list - chosen to prepare for the second coming of the outer-space travellers.
Mr. Vorilhon has worked tirelessly to spread his message, which includes sexual liberation, among other beliefs. The group claims to have about 50,000 followers worldwide, of whom about a tenth are active. The movement's more sizable followings are in Quebec, French-speaking European countries and Japan.
Despite their best efforts, they have failed to make inroads in the United States. Prof. Bouchard believes their philosophy of sexual freedom clashes with that country's more "puritanical" values.
However, he believes the group has found a receptive audience in Quebec because of the province's rejection of the Catholic church's strict rules.
As for Rael, he reportedly divides his time between the movement's headquarters and theme park, UFOland, in Valcourt, Que., and a follower's home in Florida. He is said to spend 10 hours a day on the Internet and playing racing video games.