A Global day of protest against the Church of Scientology organised by internet group "Anonymous" began today with demonstrations outside the church's Australian offices.
About 150 people gathered at the Church of Scientology building in the Sydney CBD this morning, most of them carrying picket signs and wearing costumes or masks.
At 11am, when the protest was scheduled to start, staff inside the building set up a video camera pointed at the street below and locked the front doors. Two security guards stood outside the building and were later joined by several police officers.
The protestors, who said they had worn masks to remain anonymous and prevent possible legal action or retribution from the church, chanted "Church on the left, cult on the right", "Religion is free" and "We want Xenu".
They also made a reference to Lisa McPherson, the US woman whose death in 1995 while under the care of a branch of the church led to a civil wrongful death lawsuit. Criminal charges filed against the church over Ms McPherson's death were dropped in 2000.
Members of the crowd said they had been told not to use "geek speek" during the protest and to put their message across as clearly as possible. They handed out flyers accusing the church of financially exploiting its followers and suppressing criticism.
Anonymous, a notorious internet group whose membership includes hackers, last month declared "war" on the church and temporarily prevented access to at least one official Scientology website.
In a statement released this afternoon, the Church of Scientology's Oceania branch condemned the actions of Anonymous and described the group as "cyber-terrorists".
"Anonymous is perpetrating religious hate crimes against Churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry," the statement said.
"It is Anonymous that has repeatedly attempted to suppress free speech through illegal assaults on church websites so as to prevent internet users from obtaining information.
"They have also engaged in other harassment including threats of violence in telephone calls, fax transmissions and emails, not to mention the Anonymous mailing of white powder to dozens of our churches."
Anti-Scientology demonstrations in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide were promoted from a blog called "anonaustralia" which offered flyers people could download and print to hand out at the demonstration and suggested attendees wear masks.