Sect held strange allure for Quebec middle class

WHILE Quebec has been fertile ground for all sorts of spiritual movements in recent years - mostly ageing hippies trying to be organic farmers - the Order of the Solar Temple had a more ominous overtone.

Under the leadership of Luc Jouret, the Solar Temple developed a penchant for secrecy and fire-arms. The mystery is how it managed to attract middle-class adherents and establish itself in luxurious surroundings with properties in Quebec, Switzerland, France, Martinique and Australia.

Quebeckers were stunned to learn that the victims in Switzerland included the prominent mayor of a Montreal suburb and his wife, a Quebec journalist and a senior official from the Quebec Ministry of Finance. At least eight and possibly as many as 20 of the people who died in Switzerland came from Quebec.

In addition, the bodies of a man and a woman - and last night two further bodies burnt beyond recognition - were found in the ruins of the Solar Temple headquarters in Morin Heights, a ski resort north of Montreal. Authorities have still not identified the first pair but, based on autopsies, they do not believe the man was either Mr Jouret, who has not been seen in Canada for more than a year, or Joseph di Mambro, the other registered owner of the semi-detached house.

There had been serious concerns last year that the group had infiltrated the management of Hydro-Quebec, the province's huge electrical utility after a police raid found a project manager in possession of prohibited pistols equipped with silencers.

The investigation found the Solar Temple group were using Hydro-Quebec offices to hold meetings and Mr Jouret had even been paid to give management training and motivation seminars.

After the gun raids in March 1993, which produced weapons convictions against Mr Jouret and two of his followers, the group has been investigated in connection with death threats against four members of the Quebec provincial parliament, a series of bombings against Hydro- Quebec installations and a conspiracy to bomb Indian reserves. But beside the weapons, apparently for protection at Armageddon, no other links have been confirmed.

At the centre of the group, which the Quebec Police estimates has up to 100 members, is Luc Jouret, the charismatic 46-year-old with a medical degree from the Free University in Brussels. Born in the Belgian Congo, he grew up near Liege and was on police files as 'an active member' of a group called the Walloon Communist Youth between 1965 and 1975. The group apparently had nothing to do with the Communist movement, but was 'a cult,' according to Belgian Communist Party members. When the Canadian authorities sought information on Mr Jouret in 1985, the Belgian Justice Ministry informed them that no files had been opened on him since 1975. A year before, he had graduated as a doctor. After three years as a general practitioner he opted for homeopathic medicine while becoming fascinated with the spiritual healers from the Philippines. He made trips to Manila to study their methods, according to Stefano Macchia, who was a member of a Belgian sect with Mr Jouret in the 1970s.

'My memory of him is of someone who was a little melancholic, a bit sad,' Mr Macchia recalled. 'He was very friendly but he definitely had a certain edge over others in the group.'

Another acquaintance, said Mr Jouret was operating under the influence of an Indian guru, Krishna Macharia, and organised a series of conferences on Karma Yoga on his behalf. Many of Mr Jouret's homeopathic clients came from left-wing and extremist circles in Brussels.

Before he left Belgium to live in the village of Leglise in Luxembourg in 1981, Mr Jouret is reported to have spent time studying in China. While in Leglise, he and his partner had a child who died four days after birth and is buried in the local cemetery.

The couple, later married in India, moved to Annemasse, a French village close to the Swiss border, where Mr Jouret lived and practised homeopathic medicine until emigrating to Canada in 1986. While in Annemasse, he tried to take over a new-age sect, called the Renewed Order of the Temple. A member of that group recalled him yesterday as a 'good talker with a charismatic air'. But she added: 'His sole aim was to get money and girls. He managed to convince 10 of our group to go to Canada with him and he ruined them.'

The Montreal Crown attorney who prosecuted Mr Jouret on the weapons offences, Jean-Claude Boyer, said of the group: 'They saw themselves as superior human beings whose survival was needed to relaunch the human face after a cataclysm they saw coming because of the deterioration of world affairs.'

But he also described Mr Jouret as a very rational, serene, scientific person. 'He had the style of a gentleman. He (and his fellow defendants in the gun cases) looked like businessmen. There was nothing crazy about them.'

Surviving members of the sect recall that during full moons, Mr Jouret dressed in hooded robes to lecture followers. But they also say that he never discussed plans for mass sucide at that time.

One disgruntled former follower said Mr Jouret had 'brainwashed' between 50 and 100 wealthy people , mostly from Switzerland, France and Martinique to follow him to Quebec in the mid-1980s. One of them, Bruno Klaus, sold his farm in Switzerland and gave Mr Jouret the Cdollars 300,000 ( pounds 150,000) proceeds .

Mr Klaus's wife, Rose-Marie later sued the group and received a dollars 150,000 out-of- court settlement. 'Jouret thinks he's Christ,' she said at the time of the suit. 'He told people a great cataclysm was going to take place and only the selected will survive.' The medallions found around the necks of the Quebec victims, similar to those found on the victims in Switzerland, bear out this theme of the Apocalypse with symbols of the four horsmen. Some former members of the sect have revealed there were divisions within the group and that Mr Jouret was rejected by many because he was considered too radical - a possible explanation for his departure last year. One group which own a farm in the Eastern Townships between Montreal and the US border said they quit the group because they just wanted to continue their organic farming in peace.

In Switzerland, the members of the Order met, worshipped and died in a garish shrine. The tacky picture of a Christ-like figure, holding a green chalice covered with a light veil, looked out over the room in Cheiry where police discovered, laid out in the shape of the sun, 19 of the 23 corpses on Wednesday.

According to another former member, there were two cult meetings in the secret cellar, at five o'clock in the morning and at eight o'clock in the evening. The members had to confess how they had sinned against nature by putting plastic bags over their heads - a symbol of estrangement from nature.

(Photograph omitted)