It has created panic buying and retreats to "mystical" mountains around the world, but a Mayan prophecy that predicts the end of the world on December 21 has been rubbished by the Vatican's chief astronomer.
In a front-page editorial titled "The end is not nigh – at least for now" in the Vatican's daily newspaper, Father Jose Gabriel Funes said that there was no danger of an impending Apocalypse.
"In the media and on the internet there is a great deal of talk of the end of the world, which the Mayans supposedly predicted for December 21. If you do a search on Google, you get 40 million results on the topic," Father Funes, the director of the Vatican Observatory, wrote in 'L'Osservatore Romano'.
It was "not even worth discussing the scientific basis of these claims," the Jesuit priest from Argentina said in the article, which criticised "pseudo-prophecies" about the end of the world.
In any case, Christians subscribed to the "fundamental conviction that death is not the last word."
Father Funes, who has a master's degree in astronomy from the National University of Cordoba in Argentina as well as degrees in philosophy and theology, was made director of the Vatican Observatory in 2006.
In an interview two years later, he said it was possible that intelligent forms of life could exist on other planets in the solar system.
He said the notion did not necessarily contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church, arguing that to dismiss such a possibility would be to underestimate God's creative powers.
Aliens would still be God's creatures, he said, in an article in 'L'Osservatore Romano' headlined "The extraterrestrial is my brother."
A 5,125-year cycle known in the Mayan calendar as the Long Count comes to an end on December 21, and has been widely interpreted by cultists, New Age disciples and believers in the esoteric as heralding the end of the universe.
Panic buying of candles and essentials has been reported in China and Russia, while survival shelters are selling at a brisk rate in the US.
Believers have also gathered in areas across Europe, including the French village of Bugarach, where the mayor has been forced to ban UFO watchers and light aircraft from flat-topped mountain, Pic de Bugarach, which is seen by some as an "alien garage".
The US space agency Nasa intervened in the debate earlier this month, posting a nearly hour-long YouTube video debunking the idea of an impending apocalypse. (© Daily Telegraph, London)