Canadian Claude Rael runs a bizarre sect that claims to have cloned three human babies. He also says he's met Jesus and has been visited by green spacemen.
It's no easy business getting to see Rael, leader of the Raelians, the sect that claims to have produced the world's first cloned babies.
For a start, his headquarters, a down-at-heel theme park called UFOland, are out in the deso-late, snow-covered flatlands of Quebec, far away from anything apart from a pig farm. The main condition - among several rules he lays down for our meeting is that I should address him throughout as Your Holiness Rael.
Questions must be submitted a week in advance, and he reserves the right to leave at any time if he doesn't like the way things are going, or if anyone should display "an arrogant, disrespectful or offensive attitude".
It is mid-afternoon on a bitterly cold April day and I am in a room decorated in pastel squares, and it has a kitchenette in one corner. A small, white-suited man is advancing towards me. This, however, is no ordinary suit he is wearing; it's made out of white satin and has enormous quilted shoulder pads. He has a large medallion around his neck and his dark, thinning hair is pulled up into a topknot.
"Your Holiness," I say, "it's a great pleasure to meet you."
Rael clasps my hand in his, beckons me to a chair and in his hushed and honeyed voice starts to talk about the difficulties he has encountered in putting his Raelian message across to the world.
"At first, it was a nightmare," he acknowledges. "People, they laughed at me."
"Oh yes." He raises his eyebrows and gives a sad shake of his head. "They thought I was crazy, you know."
Rael hasn't always been as grand and god-like as this, or as nattily attired. Indeed, he hasn't always been Rael. Once he was Claude Vorilhon, a Frenchmotoring journalist who harboured dreams of becoming the formula one champion of the world. But then on December 13, 1973, Claude had an awfully big adventure.
Aged 26, and married with two small children, he had intended to go off to work as usual. Instead - "as if I was being guided" - he carried on driving until he reached an extinct volcano in the Auvergne region of France. Leaving his car, he walked to the centre of the crater, whereupon a tiny silver spaceship drew up along-side and a small bearded being stepped out.
"His skin was white, with a slightly greenish tinge, a bit like someone with liver trouble."
The greenish being proceeded to tell Claude that he had been chosen by a group of worthies from the Planet Elohim to be their representative on earth. From this moment forth, he should forswear married life, as well as the pleasures of the throttle, and devote himself to spreading the Elohim message.
In essence, this was that God didn't exist and that the theory of evolution, too, was a load of twaddle. In fact, it was they, the Elohim, who had created every form of life here using "incredibly advanced" DNA techniques - and now they were swinging by once more to check up on our progress.
Naturally, Claude was shaken by his meeting. Afterwards, he noted, "I bitterly regretted not having brought a camera with me".
Nonetheless, he complied with the Elohim's instructions as best he could, and two years later was rewarded for his pains with another meeting. This time, the Elohim whisked him back to their planet where he enjoyed a light lunch with Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha before being set back on earth.
At this second meeting Yahweh, the president of the Elohim, informed Claude, now renamed Rael, that he was not of entirely human form himself. Rael's father, it seems, was an Elohim. And what's more, Jesus was his brother.
After this, Rael threw himself into his work with even more gusto. He wrote and published various books that intersperse Raelian philosophy with predictions of what we can look forward to.
Basically, there's good news and bad news. Before long, Rael insists, we will all be sexually serviced by endlessly compliant robots known as nanobots. This, he believes, will remove the curse of jealousy from human relations for ever.
As for food, not so good - even for unfussy eaters. "Faecal matter will be re-used and recy-cled into tomorrow's food, along with the precious minerals extracted from our urine," he writes in his book Yes to Human Cloning.
Rael also encourages his followers to practise an ancient Elohim form of relaxation called "sensual meditation". This teaches them connect with the cosmos while in no way losing touch with their erogenous zones.
And then Rael developed a new interest - cloning. In conjunction with a French biochemist called Brigitte Boisselier, he set up a website called Clonaid, which subsequently spawned a laboratory along with a couple of subsidiaries for the extra-keen cloner: Clonapet and Insuraclone.
On December 29, 2002, Boisselier announced that a 3.2 kilogram cloned baby girl called Eve had been born to a 31-year-old mother somewhere in theUnited States. This news was greeted with almost universal derision from scientists, and frenzied excitement from newspapers.
Constant promises to provide proof of the baby girl's origins were made - yet never materialised.
Earlier this month, amid a good deal of solemnity and a now familiar lack of proof, a photograph of another cloned baby - the third - was released. To the untutored eye, it looked pretty much like any other baby lying in an incubator.
To the Raelian eye, it represented another step towards their goal. This is nothing less than founding heaven on earth.
To reach UFOland, I turn off a narrow snow-swept road on to a dirt one and bump along for a few kilometres until I come to a large sign that reads, The Messiah is Among Us.
Various Raelian helpers are waiting, all wearing medallions round their necks bearing the Raelian symbol - a bit like a Star of David, but with swirly bits in the middle.
Everyone, quite clearly, is extremely nervous. Rael is still preparing himself, so there is plenty of time to look around.
I am shown into the room where our interview will take place. There is a chair covered in a white cloth, with a small white cushion, for Rael to sit on. Then I am taken next door to the theme park area of UFOland, which is closed to the public amid doubts that it will ever reopen. We trudge through deep snow, medallions swinging, to another door which leads into an enormous blackened room.
One of Rael's followers, a French-Canadian called Daniel, fiddles with the lights, which come on to reveal, hanging from the roof, a full-scale replica of the silver flying saucer in which Elohim appeared. There is also a large portrait of Christ nearby.
Steps lead up into the saucer, the inside of which is about 2.4metres across. It is empty, apart from two transparent inflatable chairs. A notice reads: "Their technology is 25,000 years more advanced than ours. The craft is probably controlled by the mind of the pilot."
Daniel says he writes music "to harmonise myself".
"Is it Raelian music?"
"Mmm, some of it. And I also write advertising jingles. I have a number of different influences. Jazz-rock, also Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I like them very much."
Escorting me hurriedly back through the snow to the pastel room, Daniel and the others seem even more nervous for what is beginning to look very much like a carefully orchestrated entrance by Rael.
In our absence, more medallioned people have materialised and a film camera has been set up to record our encounter.
First, however, a woman of indeterminate age with long, streaked-blonde hair and wearing hugely flared trousers, enters. This, I realise, is Boisselier - normally resident in Las Vegas, she tells me, but recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Israel.
She has been working with Rael for 10 years. "I was a scientist and I believed in evolution," she says. "But then I went and heard Rael speak and immediately felt he was telling the truth. I still do."
Suddenly there is a commotion by the door, and Rael appears. Although everyone else in the room seems terrified of incurring his disapproval, I must say I rather take to him.
He's impish, quite funny and not obviously demonic in manner. When he crosses his legs, a length of cream-coloured material sticks out from beneath his trousers. His Holiness, I realise, is wearing long johns.
I'm curious about Rael's encounter with his brother, Jesus - a memorable event in anyone's book. Had Jesus greeted him as a brother?
"So you think he recognised you, Your Holiness?"
"Yes. But you know, all the Elohim are so brotherly. You feel the warmth of everyone. There was no more warm love from him than there was from the Elohim themselves."
Rael talks at length about being "submerged in love"' by the Elohim. As he does, it strikes me that he is being just a little bit circumspect about his relationship with Jesus. I can't help feeling a bit downcast by this, as I was keen to find out more.
Despite his early difficulties, Rael stuck devotedly to his appointed task of spreading the Elohim's word. He left his wife, Marie-Paul Cristini (who has since spoken of "debauched and wicked things that went on in our home"). Along the way he also infuriated his mother, to whom the news that she had inadvertently consorted with an Elohim came as a nasty surprise.
"Claude has always been weird," she says. "What he's doing now is vile."
Professionally, however, everything continus to go wonderfully well, most notably in the recruitment department.
There are about 60,000 Raelians "in 85 countries", all contributing annual membership fees - between three and seven per cent of their income. And all are attracted by the distant prospect of eternal life, all eagerly devouring his books and all turning hopeful eyes to the skies in the hope that one day they, too, might be visited by a little greenish man.
But here they might be out of luck. Although Rael says he is in occasional telepathic communication with the Elohim, apparently they have no plans to return to earth - at least not until he has built them "an embassy".
Which brings us, albeit rather erratically, to cloning.
The Elohim are particularly keen on cloning because, once properly developed, it will enable humans to enjoy eternal life - at least those humans who deserve it.
Right now, says Rael dismissively, "cloning is just a form of help for people with fertility problems. But the next step is to create an artificial womb.
"After that we will be able to accelerate the cellular duplication, so that instead of waiting 18 years to have an adult copy of yourself, you will be able to upload your personality and memories etcetera straight into this new body. It will be done by a special machine."
For the time being that day seems a long way off. There are, however, more topical cloning issues to contend with - namely the Raelians' unsubstantiated claims to have produced three cloned babies.
"Your Holiness," I say, "I have to tell you that while all this talk of cloned babies has won you a lot of publicity, in my opinion it's been a public relations disaster for the Raelians."
First, an appalled silence.
Then a nervous titter races round the room, broken by Rael's hushed inquiry, "How?"
"Because you've ended up looking ridiculous by repeatedly failing to produce any proof. The one scientist who was on your side - Dr Michael Guillen, the science editor of (America's) ABC News - now claims he was fooled. As for Mark and Tracy Hunt, the couple who donated 300,000 ($A782,676) in the hope of cloning a child, they have spoken of feeling disappointed and betrayed."
Here Rael engages in some keen, if not frantic, back-pedalling.
"She - that is, Dr Boisselier - keeps her company," he says. "It is a private concern. There is absolutely no link between the Raelian movement and the cloning company.
"We support the idea - that is all. Yes. But it is wonderful for us, all the publicity. The media coverage has been valued at seven million dollars - that's US dollars. So this is a very comfortable situation for me. It's a win-win situation, you know. I don't even know where the cloning laboratory is. And I don't want to know. As for the proof, that's her problem."
For her part Boisselier, a touch icily, informs me that she had intended to produce proof of the first baby's origins. A lawyer in Florida said that would be infringing the baby's rights, so what now?
Now she has decided that it would be unfair on either of the two other children and their parents to reveal their identities.
"You see, it's simple to prove scientifically, but not humanly."
If true, this makes her unique in the annals of medical science - someone who lights upon one of the greatest discoveries of all time, then opts to keep quiet about it in order to protect her patients' feelings.
However, Boisselier does say - amid anxious chirrups of "I know nothing!" from Rael - to have a team of six scientists in her employ and to be working on another 20 cloned pregnancies. And that is as far as she - or he - will go.
Rael, it turns out, has cleverly bypassed the need for cloning. He's been guaranteed eternal life on the Elohim Planet of the Eternals, where various human luminaries are sent to enjoy their post-twilight years.
But while Raelians are keen on artificial means of conception, they are not intrinsically opposed to more traditional forms of sexual enjoyment. By no means.
Rael is believed to be a keen advocate of multiple-partner sex. However, he points out that there is no pressure for anyone to join in. "We accept all people just as they are."
Indeed, you could quite easily be both Raelian and celibate, he says.
While he's relaxed about sexual conduct, there is one point on which Rael is absolutely firm. Other people - scores of them - may claim to have been abducted by extra-terrestials, but as far as he is concerned they are all either deluded or demented.
"There is," he says very deliberately, "only one messenger."
"And that is you, Your Holiness?"
"So everyone else is wrong?"
"Yes. They have problems."
"I see. Your Holiness, there is one question I wanted to ask you. A personal question. An impertinent question, you might think."
Once again, the room goes very quiet. Rael looks at me with an even sharper glint in his eye than usual. "Yes? What is your question?"
"Well, Your Holiness, I was wondering where you got your clothes from?"
An enormous smile spreads across Rael's impish features.
"Ah, that's a very interesting question. No, it's not disrespectful at all. As a matter of fact, I'm very pleased that you asked it. Actually, I make them all myself."
"Yes! Yes! I have a tailor, of course. But I do all the designs. You see, I am . . . " - and here Rael leans forward, sending folds of light shimmering from his jacket - "against uniformity in all things."
After a pause to let this sink in, he stands up. Our interview, it appears, is at an end. Hopes of persuading Rael to have his photograph taken emerging from his replica spacecraft come to nothing. "No, no," he says. "It's too cold." Even in his long johns, he is unshakeable.
I ask him to autograph my copy of Yes To Human Cloning, which he does in a large, looping hand. And then, with a final handshake and one last shimmer of satin, he is gone.
On the way back to Montreal, it begins to snow again. Large flakes, as big as moths, fall slowly through the air. For some reason I feel incredibly tired. Later that evening, having a drink at the end of one of the oddest days I've had in years, I glance at my horoscope in the newspaper someone has left behind on thebar. It reads: "Unusual new friends come into your life and surprise you with their points of view. Your world is fascinating."