World

Church of controversy

Scientologists protest discrimination in Germany

TOM FENNELL November 17 1997
World

Church of controversy

Scientologists protest discrimination in Germany

TOM FENNELL November 17 1997

Church of controversy

World

The crowd jammed beneath the towering Brandenburg Gate in Berlin cheered when actor John Travolta’s face suddenly flashed across a vast video screen. Thousands of Scientologists from around the world had travelled to the city late last month to protest the official discrimination they face in Germany. Travolta, one of a handful of Hollywood celebrities who follow the sect’s teachings, urged the protesters to continue their fight for “freedom of religion.” Last week, the growing controversy followed German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel to Montreal, where he was confronted by 50 placard-waving Scientologists outside a downtown hotel. But Kinkel was unmoved. At a news conference following his address to the Canadian Club, he compared the Church of Scientology to the Nazi party and vowed that his country would never again fall into the hands of radicals. “Germany,” he declared, “has learned the lessons of history.”

The Scientologists, disciples of deceased American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, have mounted a ferocious international campaign against Germany’s attempts to control their operations. In advertisements placed in some of the world’s leading newspapers,

they have compared themselves to German Jews who were cruelly persecuted and sent to Nazi death camps in the 1930s (although Jewish groups reject the parallel). The Bonn government argues that it is out to stop a group it sees as a ruthless profit-making organization and a potential danger to society. But its measures are harsh: it prohibits Scientologists from holding government jobs and has even placed the group under surveillance by the Office of Protection of the Constitution—which

can legally intercept mail and tap phones.

The besieged church does have a powerful ally. The United States, one of the few countries in the world that has granted the Los Angeles-based organization full tax-exempt status as a religion, has said Germany’s crackdown on Scientologists is a violation of human rights. Kinkel rejected that argument

as he prepared to discuss the issue with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Washington after his Canadian stop. “It is completely absurd to criticize Germany for prosecuting Scientology,” he said. “It is not a religion.”

Independent estimates say the Church of Scientology has assets

Scientologists protest discrimination in Germany

in the range of $700 million. (Church officials, however, insist the organization is worth only a fraction of that amount.) And with nearly eight million members worldwide, it is determined to press its case for full religious recognition. At the Berlin demonstration, the 25 Canadian Scientologists who made the trip mingled with such American celebrities as Anne Archer, best known for her appearance in Fatal Attraction, and soul-music legend Isaac Hayes. Others waved banners reading “1933-1997: nothing has changed,” and listened to dozens of speakers condemn Germany’s treatment of the group, which has no more than 30,000 members in the country of

81 million. “There are people here who get attacked just because of what they think,” said Guy Tourville, a music producer from Montreal. “We just want to be free to express ourselves and say what we think.”

The Scientologists believe that Hubbard’s 1950 book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, revealed the secrets of unlocking human potential. According to Hubbard, who founded the organization in 1954, the universe was created by Thetans—immortal souls who are now trapped in all human bodies.

Thetans, however, can be troubled by traumatic events, known as Engrams, that occurred both in this and previous lifetimes.

Engrams can be removed through counselling and the use of a device known as an E-meter, which has electrodes attached to two metal cylinders. Small amounts of electricity are passed through the body of the person holding the cylinders, causing the needle to jump as it apparently registers Engrams. At the same time, a senior Scientologist counsels the novice until the Engram disappears.

Scientologists pay for each counselling session, and as a result the German government regards Scientology as a giant pyramid scheme in which new adherents are bilked out of their money. Some Ger-

man officials also see a more sinister aspect They believe that Scientology’s ultimate goal is to infiltrate governments and finally create a Scientology superstate. “This is not a church or a religious organization,” said German Labor Minister Norbert Blüm. “Scientology is a machine for manipulating human beings.”

The church strongly denies Bliim’s allegation, and both sides are now locked in a battle for public opinion in Germany. At meetings in late October, an anti-Scientologist parents group in Berlin invited former members of the church to describe their experiences. An 18-year-old named Tanya said her parents forced her to take counselling from the group, and she was later required to recruit other teenagers. “So far, the Scientologists have not filed a charge against me,” said Tanya, “because I have proof for everything I am saying.”

The Scientologists, however, believe it is their members who are being hurt. According to members who addressed a symposium following the Berlin rally, German students often play “chase the Scientology terrorist” when they come upon a suspected believer, and banks refuse to loan money to businessmen belonging to the church. The Canadians attending the rally also said they faced discrimination when a hotel in Berlin suddenly cancelled their reservations. Being turned away shocked many of the Canadians. “You just want to use Scientology to benefit others,” said Michale Gaumond, a 45-year-old mother of three from Montreal. “My children are not doing drugs. They are great people.”

Despite Germany’s view, the Scientologists have found support elsewhere. The United Nations, the human rights group Helsinki Watch and the U.S. House of Representatives have all raised concerns over Germany’s treatment of the church. Dozens of courts around the world have also declared Scientology to be a religion. In Canada, several provinces allow pastors of the church to perform weddings, although Ottawa has yet to grant the organization tax-exempt status as a religion. Last week, the Scientologists made another legal advance when a German court ruled that many of its practices are religious in nature and therefore may not be taxable.

Although its critics said the decision would have little impact, Scientology International president Heber Jentzech hailed it as “a dramatic victory for freedom of religion.”

In explaining the hardline German attitude, experts point to the long shadow cast by the Nazis. Irving Hexham, a University of Calgary religious studies professor who has researched the issue, says the Germans are determined to prevent the rise of political parties similar to those in the 1920s and 1930s, which advocated the superiority of one race or group over another. As a result, the insular Scientologists, as well as the so-called Moonies, who follow the teachings of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, and other small evangelical Christian groups, are being closely monitored by the government. “From the German viewpoint,” says Hexham, “a lot of Scientology’s ideas look remarkably similar to those that brought Adolf Hitler to power.” The centralized nature of Germany’s mainline Catholic and Protestant churches also works against the Scientologists. The established churches, says Hexham, are directly funded through a tax levied by

the federal government. The churches in turn have hired more than 190 full-time cult experts who also carefully watch many small religious groups.

The Church of Scientology has not been without controversy in Canada. In 1983, more than 100 members of the Ontario Provincial Police raided the church’s Canadian headquarters in Toronto. Court testimony later revealed that Scientologists, who were working in sensitive jobs in a number of government agencies, had copied personal information on hundreds of Canadians. The church was fined $250,000 and was also ordered to pay a $1.6-million libel judgment. It later blamed the scandal on a secretive internal group known as the Guardian’s Office, which has since been disbanded.

Other European countries are also troubled by the Scientologists. Earlier this year, a report by Switzerland’s justice ministry stated that the church was operating a “comprehensive intelligence service” that was collecting information about its members and critics. In July, an appeal court in Lyon, France, gave the former head of the church’s local branch, Jean-Jacques Mazier, a three-year suspended sentence after ruling that a young man had committed suicide because of pressure from Mazier to take Scientology courses. In the same judgment, the court said Scientology could rightfully call itself a religion. That statement outraged French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who said it was up to the government to decide if Scientology is a religion. But across Europe, and especially in Germany, governments can expect the battle over that issue to intensify.

TOM FENNELL

BRENDA BRANSWELL

REGINE WOSNITZA