Masked protesters hike up pressure on Scientologists

Scotsman, UK/February 11, 2008

Dressed in black, sporting masks and handing out leaflets on a sunny Sunday morning, more than 30 people stand on an Edinburgh pavement protesting against the Church of Scientology in Scotland.

John is among them, a 29-year-old from Edinburgh who lifts up his grinning Guy Fawkes mask so he can explain why he's standing with complete strangers on the city's South Bridge with a flyer urging Scots not to "let a UFO cult take us back to the Middle Ages".

He has never been a fan of the Church of Scientology, based in Hubbard Academy of Personal Independence across the street, their only Scottish presence.

But he said the recent removal from YouTube of a video showing actor Tom Cruise "energetically" defending his faith concerned him as a web user.

John, who would not give his last name, said: "Scientology took the video down - it went back up of course. So this group decided we wanted our freedom of speech and we would organise protests against Scientology."

Why the mask?

"It's unlikely any one of us would be hounded, but in the past, critics have been hounded," said John.

Posters such as "Honk if you think Scientology is a cult" and "Knowledge is free" were just two of the signs waved at passing motorists and the Hubbard Academy from the narrow pavement. From the second-floor windows, the smiling bronze bust of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard looked down on the rabble of campaigners.

But despite the healthy turnout of protesters such as John, the numbers pale in comparison with the 7,000 Scots boasted as members by the Edinburgh centre, 100,000 in the UK and more than eight million worldwide.

The Hubbard Academy is just one of 14 in the UK, including Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton, Plymouth, Hove, York, Eastbourne and Tunbridge Wells. There are two in London, including a new centre that opened in October 2006.

At the South Bridge centre, marked by a small owl painted above the door, there are weekly Sunday services, "to help you move past fears, anxiety and depression, and confidently face the future". You can also do a personality test at the Hubbard Academy, and there are "Living in a Toxic World" lectures every Tuesday evening.

But the Edinburgh campaigners, faces blackened, covered by scarves or Halloween masks, argued that the church's behaviour towards critics meant they needed to raise awareness in the wider public.

Websites ranging from Facebook to anti-sect site Operation Clambake coordinated the global "Project Chanology" protests yesterday in centres including London, Brighton, Leeds, Manchester and Dublin.

The Church of Scientology in the UK last night branded Sunday's protesters - who individually and collectively called themselves "Anonymous" - as "cyber-terrorists" who were themselves anti-free speech.

Scientology is almost as famous for its celebrity members as for its often questioned practices.

The church counts Hollywood stars John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Juliette Lewis as members, as well as soul-legend Isaac Hayes, the musician Beck and even the voice of Bart Simpson, Nancy Cartwright.

According to Scientology's official online bookstore, for 5,000 (£3,700) you get the "ultimate package", including 473 lectures and 18 books. A "basic" package costing 3,000 consists of 18 books and 11 companion lectures. Some "kits" cost as little as £5.

One of the protesters, a 19-year-old student from Dunoon, said: "We are representing the public, opposing Scientology. They have tried to silence the web."

Another 19-year-old from Glasgow, sporting a white eye mask, said she was protesting the practices of Scientology, not the faith.

She said: "We are not attacking the beliefs per se.

"It is possible to attack their practices and the things that have happened as a result. I never realised how serious it was until the last couple of months.

"We just want to remain anonymous - we're afraid of their tactics."

It was the alleged tactics of Scientology that brought notoriety to BBC reporter John Sweeney last year when he "lost the plot" in a confrontation with a senior American organiser. He claimed that while investigating the group he was followed, shouted at, repeatedly called a bigot and had his hotel invaded late at night by camera-toting Scientologists.

In July 2007, a Russian court ordered a centre operated by the Scientology movement in St Petersburg to be shut down amid claims of unlicensed teaching and other activities.

In September, a Belgian prosecutor concluded Scientology was a "criminal organisation" and up to 12 people should be charged.

A spokesman for the Church of Scientology in the UK said: "'Anonymous' is a group of cyber-terrorists who hide their identities behind masks and computer anonymity. They are perpetrating religious hate crimes against Churches of Scientology.

"They initially justified their attacks by claiming that the Church's requests to some websites to remove a stolen video of an internal Church event somehow constituted an affront to free speech. In fact, the Church, as would any copyright owner, had simply sent routine notices that the video constituted a copyright violation.

"The group's alleged 'free speech' justification is belied by the fact that the video in question has been seen by millions. It is 'Anonymous' that has repeatedly attempted to suppress free speech through illegal assaults on Church websites.

"Quite obviously, this group is not just anti-Scientology, it is anti-freedom of religion and anti-free speech."

"The actions of 'Anonymous' will not interrupt the Church's normal activities serving its parishioners and the community, and the Church is working in co-ordination with the police to minimise the negative impact of this terrorist group."

Online last night, "Anonymous" insisted they were not a group of "super hackers", adding: "We want you to be aware of the very real dangers of Scientology. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. We will be heard. Expect us."

"If you want to make a million, start your own religion"

L Ron Hubbard, full name Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, was born in Nebraska in 1911.

Beyond that basic fact, much of the writer's life is still disputed, with vastly contrasting versions from Scientologists and anti-Scientology biographers.

He wrote many science fiction, fantasy, western and adventure stories, initially under pseudonyms.

In 1949, he started to promote his Dianetics self-improvement technique, publishing a book by the same name in 1950: it sold 150,000 copies in the first year.

The Church of Scientology was founded in 1953, describing itself as "the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, others and all of life".

According to the church, the ultimate goal is to get the individual being (the "I", called Thetan) back to its native state of total freedom, thus gaining control over matter, energy, space, time, thoughts, form and life. This freed state is called "Operating Thetan".

Believers in Scientology say it offers "exact" methods of spiritual counselling, to help people achieve awar eness of their spiritual existence. Through the process of "auditing", people can free themselves of specific traumatic incidents and prior transgressions, which restrict the person from reaching the state of "Clear", and, after that, the state of "Operating Thetan".

Members believe psychiatry and psychology are destructive and abusive.

Scientology keeps its texts secret until devotees have paid enough money to learn what they say. Some opponents claim the cost of completing all the courses can set an individual back $380,000 (£195,000). The church itself says the most expensive course it offers costs $33,932 (£17,430).

In the 1940s, Reader's Digest quoted Hubbard, then a sci-fi author, as saying: "If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion."

In 1982, Hubbard was estimated to be worth £100 million. He died in 1986.

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