Joining thousands of Scientology protesters around the world Sunday was a group of about 30 people in Santa Barbara, who stood outside the Church of Scientology at 524 State Street, picketing against the church's alleged crimes, human rights abuses, and harassment of critics. The religion-which counts actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its adherents-has been under recent fire not just on city streets but also in online message boards, with most of the ammunition coming from a group called "Anonymous."
Recently, the shadowy group has taken on the Church of Scientology with a series of technological assaults aiming to overwhelm the church's email, telephone, and Web systems, which the church has characterized as "cyber-terrorism." The group is also thought to be responsible for releasing private videos the church claims are copyrighted, including a revealing interview of Cruise.
Sunday, members and associates of Anonymous came out from behind their computers and instead hid their faces behind masks on State Street and around the world in protest. An announcement of the Santa Barbara protest encouraged participants to remain anonymous when in public because of "Scientology's heavy-handed tactics when dealing with protesters and critics," and many followed the recommendation.
"It's difficult to tell whom you can talk to about this," said one of the participants, who identified himself with the pseudonym "Five." Participants cited a church doctrine they called "fair play," in which the church allegedly tries to discredit-through whatever means necessary-people who speak out against the church. Except those who came together at the Santa Barbara protest, most in the gathering claimed to not know anything about one another-not even names. But they do know they have at least one thing in common, according to Five. "Everyone's involved for the same core reason: Decency to fellow human beings," he said.
One protester more than willing to give his name was UCSB freshman William Wynn. Wynn believes the groups' reasons for opposing the church can be taken more seriously when there's a name behind the statement. "There needs to be people willing to say something," he said. Before he heard about the protest, Wynn said, he knew little about Scientology. But after hearing some claims, he researched the religion and found what he perceived to be reports of the church mistreating both current and former members with threats or physical harm. Another protest with 12-15 people was held in Santa Barbara one week prior. A third is scheduled for March 15.
When contacted, Rev. Lee Holzinger of the Santa Barbara Church of Scientology released a statement from the church. "'Anonymous' is a group of cyber-terrorists who hide their identities behind masks and computer anonymity," the statement read. The group is "perpetrating religious hate crimes against churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry." The statement also attributed to Anonymous a recent hoax involving the mailing of white powder to several Southern California Scientology churches, although the group has not claimed responsibility for this stunt.
Because Anonymous seems to lack any hierarchy or leadership, it is difficult to tell who is sanctioning and carrying out the attacks. But the statement from Holzinger said that Anonymous's altruistic purposes are no different than those heard from terrorist or hate groups. "We are not the first to be targeted," read the statement, calling the actions of the group deplorable. "Quite obviously, this group is not just anti-Scientology, it is anti-freedom of religion, anti-American, and anti-free speech."
Protesters stressed that they are for freedom of religion, but are against the policies of the Church of Scientology. They support a split-off group of the organization, called Free Zone, made up of people who have left the church but still practice its teachings. "What we're opposed to is the organization rather than the belief system," Five said.