I first encountered Raëlian priest Marc Letourneau last July at the annual UFO Festival in Roswell, N.M. I planned to attend his talk, originally scheduled at the UFO Museum, before it was abruptly cancelled. The Raëlians' beliefs, it turns out, were considered too out there.

Letourneau had to settle instead for speaking at the Alien Resistance Headquarters across the street. ARH is run by Guy Malone, who says he was routinely abducted by aliens until he turned to Jesus. Asked why he welcomed a Raëlian speaker, Malone explained that, though Raëlians teach that the aliens are our loving fathers--and not agents of Satan as Malone believes--he knew Letourneau would draw a lot of traffic. As Letourneau explained to the crowd of 50 or so, "Guy and I may disagree about extraterrestrials, but at least he supports democracy and freedom of speech."

Letourneau, a bearded, soft-spoken 47-year-old with a thick French-Canadian accent, described the origins of Raëlian belief. On Dec. 13, 1973, Claude Vorlihon spotted a silver UFO hovering near a volcano in the French countryside. The extraterrestrials invited Verlihon aboard their vessel where they explained he'd been chosen to be their messenger. Human beings were created by the extraterrestrials, they told him. They revealed that there is no supernatural God, and that they were the Elohim named in the biblical book of Genesis, a plural Hebrew word that means "those who came from the sky." They gave him the name Raël.

Because the Elohim created us through genetic engineering, cloning is the ultimate technology that allows the Elohim, who store our DNA on their planet, to resurrect us. Curiously, the Raëlians are also biblical literalists. When they say that only the 144,000 are destined for eternal life, it's because that's the number cited in Revelation.

In October 1975, Raël had a second encounter. The Elohim took him to their planet, where he got a foretaste of an Austin Powers-style paradise. Raël's room was "entirely carpeted with shaggy furs," a huge bed, and a sunken bathtub. A robot trotted out six beautiful female human robots and put on some mood music. "I went to bed and spent the most extravagant night of my life with my marvelous female companions," writes Raël in his account of the trip.

I sought out Letourneau again after hearing last month that Clonaid, a cloning concern founded by Raëlian bishop Brigitte Boisselier, had produced the first human clone, a baby nicknamed Eve. I spoke with Letourneau by phone on New Year's Eve.

How long have you been a Raëlian?
I've been a Raëlian for 25 years. I am a guide, or priest. Like any organization, we have a hierarchy. There are five levels, starting with assistant animators, and then animators. Then there are assistant guides, and then two levels of guides, priests and bishops.

How many bishops and priests are there?
There are maybe 20 or 30 bishops in the entire world and maybe 100 priests.

Raël was created specifically by the Elohim to receive their message, right?
Yes, that's the way they do it. They create messengers to proclaim their messages to humans. They created Jesus, for example. They also created Buddha, Moses, Elijah, and Mohammed.

What skills did they give Raël to get the job done?
It's not explained. They always want their messengers to be their offspring. I believe that's to ensure the messenger won't refuse the mission. It's not easy to receive a message like that. Raël went for six to eight months with terrible stress after he received his message.

They shaped him to become a leader. They pushed him early in life to become a good public speaker, and a good writer. He was a journalist who created a leading sports motor magazine in France.

Why have the Elohim kept us ignorant about our true origins?
They never kept that from us! They've always told us who we are, like in the Bible, for example. But we've never understood their message. It is written, "Let us make man in our own image." And it means the extraterrestrials are like us! Our ancestors on earth understood this. Today, the religions have the wrong perception, and [the Elohim] have sent Raël to remove the dust from those texts.

If we're all children of extraterrestrials, why not tell more people? Do the Elohim think we can't handle the truth?
You got it. They understand we could be very, very disturbed if they landed officially somewhere on Earth. So this conception will make its way into the public gradually until we reach a critical mass, at which point they will land.

Only 144,000 of all the people who ever lived will be resurrected?
Yes. And they won't necessarily be Raëlians. In other words, you can be a Raëlian but not do enough with your life. But we learn how to live our lives and to be happy, and not worry so much about what happens at the end. If you're not resurrected, you will never know you weren't. You'll just be dead.