This Europe: Why a cult leader is suddenly no laughing matter

Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a 34-year-old man in a stripy jumper who smiles a great deal. His name is Arnaud Mussy and he used to think he was the apostle James.

No one much took him seriously, apart from his perpetually smiling disciples, until the suicide attempts started. Now the temporary headquarters of his sect in Nantes, in western France, is under permanent police surveillance.

The French authorities fear a repeat of the Solar Temple mass suicides in Switzerland, Quebec and France in 1994.

Mr Mussy, leader of the Neo-Phare sect, has told his followers that the end of the world is approaching. When exactly? "The Appointed Time does not worry about dates," he told journalists invited to a press conference. "But at any event, before Christmas."

Last month, three members of his sect decided not to wait. One young man threw himself under a car and was killed. Another threw himself from the tower of a château and was injured. The next day, his wife climbed to the top of the same tower, naked, with a rose clenched between her teeth, and jumped to the ground. She also was seriously hurt.

Mr Mussy disclaims all responsibility for these events. However, he and a half-dozen of his most faithful followers shut themselves in a house in the suburbs of Nantes two weeks ago.

With the anniversary of 11 September approaching, the neighbours are worried. "What if they let the gas run and blew themselves up?" one asked.

Mr Mussy insists that the suicide attacks on Washington and New York a year ago were a "message from God". It was a warning to humanity to prepare for the Apocalypse.

Three months later, and it seems God sent another message, to Mr Mussy personally, informing him that he was Jesus.

"Am I really Jesus? I have received no e-mail of confirmation," he told journalists. "But I know that the Apocalypse is joy ... Do not forget that God is a joker."