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Eve born to a cult that extols a race car driver

New York, Dec. 28 (Reuters): Nearly three decades ago, Claude Vorilhon, a sportswriter and race car driver, stood at the top of a volcano and began a movement that now lies behind a stunning scientific breakthrough — or a staggering hoax.

Vorilhon, a Frenchman who calls himself Rael, claims to have held six meetings with space travellers at the volcano, after which he founded a religion based on the belief that aliens created humankind through cloning 25,000 years ago.

Now, a research company with close ties to his sect, called the Raelians, says it has followed suit: cloning a baby girl called Eve from cells provided by a 31-year-old woman.

Clonaid, the company, offered no proof of its success when it announced what it claims is the first human cloning. But it said independent tests backing its claims would be finished in about a week.

“You could still go back to your office and treat me as a fraud,” Brigitte Boisselier, the company’s director and a “Raelian Bishop”, said at a news conference. “You have one week to do that.”

The Raelians, who are based in Canada and estimate they have about 55,000 members, have said cloning is a chance to combine science and religious beliefs, largely based on teachings by aliens.

One academic who has studied the sect said it has been able to raise large sums of money through the Internet.

“Part of it is a cult that worships a race car driver who believes cloning will lead to reincarnation,” said Glenn McGee, associate director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “The other part is a website that brings people into its grip who are interested in cloning and raises significant amounts of money from them.”

While the announcement renewed the questioning of the ethics of cloning, scientists were sceptical of Clonaid’s claim that it had successfully produced the first human clone with procedures much like those used to clone Dolly the sheep.

Cattle, mice, sheep and other animals have been cloned with mixed success. Some have displayed defects later in life and scientists fear the same could happen with cloned humans.

Rael said in an interview opponents of cloning were more worried Clonaid’s first cloned baby would be “beautiful, perfect and in good health”.

“Of course, Clonaid’s goal is not to make a monster or a handicapped child, which would be terrible. The first child must be perfect, let’s say in a health that is recognised as perfect,” he said during a interview last year.

Clonaid has been racing Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori to produce the first cloned baby.

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