Sunday, December 09, 2007

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Court fight looms as Germany seeks to outlaw Scientologists

The Church of Scientology vowed yesterday to invoke America’s help in its battle against the German government, which declared it unconstitutional last week in the first step towards an outright ban.

Sabine Weber, president of the church in Berlin, said the organisation would drag the German government through the courts and expected to win, with support from the US State Department.

“Criminal examinations [in the past] all ended in our favour,” said Weber.

Last Friday the German government gave the security services one year to gather enough evidence to outlaw the church, which was founded in 1952 by L Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer, and numbers the Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its followers.

If the government has its way, Germany will become the first western country to close it down. The German authorities argue that Scientologists “suppress the individuality” of fellow members, brainwash vulnerable minds and plot to take over the world.

After a decade of surveillance, the German security services claim to have discovered proof of the Scientologists’ ambition in their own literature.

“To implement our planetary rescue mission, we must reach the highest levels of the German government in Berlin,” a Church of Scientology document allegedly states.

The Scientologists dismiss such accusations as paranoia inspired by the Lutheran church.

Even some of the sect’s fiercest opponents do not believe the politicians will succeed, pointing to their past failure to outlaw neo-Nazi groups.

“I would rate their chances as 50-50,” said Wilfried Handl, a Scientologist for 28 years who quit five years ago and has written extensively about his experience.

Handl, 53, wishes the politicians good luck, however. “You cannot underestimate Scientology,” he said. “It’s a small, totalitarian creed, based on a small book by Hubbard. But Nazism also began with a small book, by Hitler. And look what happened.” Critics have accused Germany of overreacting to Scientology because its own recent history makes the authorities extra-sensitive to political extremes. Just as communists were barred from the West German civil service and schools during the cold war, Scientologists have been driven out of German politics and academia in the past decade.

When Cruise, a well-known proselytiser for the sect, wanted to film the movie Valkyrie in Berlin earlier this year, he was banned from the defence ministry buildings where some scenes were set. After international protests the government relented, allowing Cruise to put on the uniform of Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the failed 1944 plot to kill Hitler.

Other Hollywood Scientologists, such as Travolta, are virtually guaranteed a similarly frosty reception if ever they venture to Germany.

Jeannette Schweitzer, who left the church on the brink of suicide and has devoted the past 17 years to helping other defectors, says Scientology should be “eradicated”.

Even at a distance of nearly two decades, her voice falters as she describes the torment she says she endured in her three years as a paid-up member – a privilege that cost her about £50,000 in fees for Scientology courses and “audits”.

Yet Schweitzer, 56, is not convinced that banishing Cruise’s creed from Germany is the solution.

“The information campaign against Scientology is working,” she said. “Most of their members have already quit the organisation. There are only a few hundred left in the whole country.”

Weber said there were 30,000 adherents in Germany today, the same number it claimed 10 years ago.