Cult warning on travelling `god'

MORE THAN 500 pairs of adoring eyes gaze at a tiny woman in a long apricot skirt and embroidered jacket as she stands in their midst tossing flowers into their upturned hands. For her disciples, "The Supreme Master Ching Hai" is close to a living god.

For the past three weeks the face of "the master", as her followers call her, has smiled out from laminated posters tied to traffic lights and road signs advertising the event and bearing the message: "See the living god". Last week two large halls were filled to overflowing, with 2,000 people packed in while as many as 300 were left on the pavement outside the Institute of Education in London's West End.

London was the final stopping-off place for Ching Hai, who has spent the past few months on a worldwide recruitment drive. This Vietnamese woman, who travels on a British passport, has two million followers belonging to the sect Suma Ching Hai, based in Taiwan, where "the master" lives.

Fears are growing, however, that Ching Hai's recruits have undergone changes in personality after being recruited at great speed. According to the Cult Information Centre, relatives of her followers are also worried by the large amounts of merchandise available to disciples and the money they can spend to be in the presence of their leader. Last week the sect gained 300 new British members during a course of 19 lectures where people crowded around desks to be "initiated" before being "immediately enlightened" by Ching Hai.

Recruits are interviewed and have to follow five rules including becoming vegetarian and meditating for two-and-a-half hours a day. The highlight of the week for existing members and enthusiastic new ones was a retreat to hear more wisdom from the master at Pontin's Holiday Village near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.

For the less committed the "convenient method" of enlightenment is available. Three rules are the same - no lying, stealing or "sexual misconduct" - but adherents need meditate for only half an hour a day and be vegetarian for 10 days a month.

Controversy is not new to the sect. In 1997 the US Senate Governmental Affairs Committee heard how President Clinton's legal defence fund had to return $800,000 after investigators traced the source of the funds to Suma Ching Hai, which as a foreign organisation was not eligible to donate. The committee heard evidence from investigators that it was a "cult" which put pressure on members to make donations.