Brussels -- It all began with a woman who wanted her money back.
In 1997 a former member of the Church of Scientology, unhappy with courses she had taken, tried to get a refund of 700,000 Belgian francs - about $17,000. Authorities began looking into the church's finances and interviewing people.
Now, 10 years and 76 cartons of documents later, prosecutors say the evidence points to one conclusion: The Church of Scientology in Belgium is a "criminal organization" that has used fraud and extortion to separate members from their money.
"I always say that you are innocent until proven guilty, but we really have enough elements and statements that we can prosecute them for a number of crimes and misdemeanors," says Lieve Pellens, a spokesperson for Belgium's Office of the Federal Prosecutor.
Though no details have been released, it seems "the whole goal is to make money" including the sale of equipment that is "almost a scam," she said.
Facing charges are 12 unidentified Scientologists as well as the church's Belgian operation and its Brussels-based European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights. In addition to fraud and extortion, they are accused of practicing medicine without a license and violating privacy laws.
A "witch hunt" is how the church describes the case.
"The charges are totally false," said Fabio Amicarelli, executive director of the European office, noting no one has been arrested or even formally notified. "If it's so clear cut, why did it take 10 years?"
Pellens acknowledges 10 years "is a terrible long time," but attributes it to the complexity of the investigation. And she concedes it could be a year before the case goes to trial, if ever.
Yet the publicity alone is causing a headache for Scientology, considered a religion in the United States, but still viewed by many Europeans as a money-making cult. The church - which has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater - has faced similar charges in France, one of several European countries including Belgium that do not officially recognize Scientology as a religion.
In hopes of changing that, the church is boosting its presence and lobbying efforts in Brussels, a headquarters of the European Parliament and other powerful institutions. In 2003, Scientology opened its European public affairs office on the same block as the European Commission. Two years later - in an initially secretive deal that caused its own controversy - the church paid $12-million for a prime piece of real estate in the heart of Brussels.
"They are very aggressive, and for me they are a pure commercial organization," says Luc Willems, a lawyer who investigated Scientology while a member of the Belgian Parliament.
"I'm not at all against religion and I have no problem with them existing, but we are interested that they are not selling wind and mentally manipulating people."
Scientology claims 10-million followers worldwide, about the population of Belgium. But in this largely Catholic country, the church has only a few hundred active members, and Amicarelli acknowledges that 10 years of investigations and negative publicity have not helped it to grow.
"I travel all over and Scientology is accepted," said Amicarelli, an Italian. "Here in Belgium it is not understood. The attitudes are totally last century."
Critics cite pressure to pay - and to stay
On a street near the Grand Place, Brussels' touristy medieval square, sits the Dianetics and Scientology Life Improvement Center. It has books by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who founded Scientology in 1954, and offers "gratis stress tests."
It is these free tests - with questions like "Do you find it easy to relax?" - that Belgian critics say are used to lure people into counseling and courses that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
"It's hard-sell marketing," said Henri de Cordes, president of Belgium's Information and Advice Center on Harmful Sectarian Organizations. "When they grab someone, they don't release him or her very easily."
One woman, now in her 80s, joined Scientology decades ago and "hasn't anything left of what she inherited from her parents," de Cordes said. "She has reached the point of no return."
During the parliamentary inquiry, current and former Scientologists testified that their first contact with the church was through the questionnaires, although Scientologists initially were "never open about the real goal of what they were doing," said Willems, then a House member.
With the results invariably showing the respondents needed help, they were encouraged to take courses and "auditing" - one-on-one sessions with a Scientology counselor using an "e-meter," a device similar to a lie detector. The process is intended to help members reach a "clear" state, free of problems.
As training and auditing costs soared, members were pressured to borrow from family or take out loans, Willems said. When their finances were depleted, they could get the services free by working for the church, although they had to pay back the money if they left Scientology.
Another way the church kept a grip on its members, Willems said, was by collecting potentially embarrassing personal information during the auditing process.
"They ask if you have sex with animals, if you're homosexual, so they make a dossier," he said. "They blackmail people. To get out of Scientology is very difficult."
Willems said he has a "normal life, no secrets." During the inquiry, however, Scientology tried to intimidate him and others it considered "enemies," he said. One lobbyist for the church warned Willems that if he continued his criticism, "it will go very wrong for you." (The church denies intimidation, and nothing happened.)
In 1997, Parliament published a list of the 189 religious groups it had studied, including Scientology, and created the center on harmful organizations to give advice and information to the public. Its library contains several of Hubbard's books, including the landmark Dianetics.
It also has such titles as Scientology: An Extremist Religion.
Group sees pattern of persecution in Europe
Investigators have filled an entire room with documents and other materials related to the case, some of it seized in 1999 when agents raided 25 homes and offices belonging to the church and satellite companies. The evidence is still subject to a rigorous pretrial process in which a judge will hear from Scientology lawyers and others. He will then decide if there are sufficient grounds to go to trial.
Although the "criminal organization" charge carries potential prison time of 10 years, Pellens said the prosecution's goal is to make the church comply with the law, not to jail church members or ban the religion.
"We are not looking into Scientology as a sect," she said.
A lawyer for the church calls that "disingenuous."
"We hear this all the time, that it has nothing to do with religion," said attorney William Walsh. "The prosecutor's statement leaking this information to the press is evidence that the heart of his case revolves around improperly evaluating the religion and attempting to somehow characterize it as a fraud."
Walsh points to a similar case in Italy where 67 Scientologists were acquitted of fraud, criminal association and other charges in 1991. After prosecutors appealed, the Italian Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that Scientology met the characteristics of a religion and that its practices were like those of other religions.
While some Scientology texts showed an "excessive" interest in money, it "appears much less excessive if we consider how money was raised in the past by the Roman Catholic Church," the court said. The church once sold "indulgences" - reduced punishment for sins - and charged for Masses and other services.
Scientology also won a victory last week when a Spanish court ruled the church has the right to register as a religion. That followed an April ruling by the European Court on Human Rights that Russia was wrong in refusing to register Scientology's Moscow church.
"We have been able to sort out our differences through dialogue and court" in other countries, said Amicarelli, Scientology's European spokesman. "In 2007, the position of the (Belgian) prosecutor is really out of date."
Amicarelli said the church "doesn't squeeze money out of people" though he acknowledged it can cost thousands of dollars for auditing and courses on the "scriptures," as Hubbard's voluminous writings are known.
"Scientology is a growing religion and this is just our financial system," Amicarelli said. "We don't get any support from government, the church is supported entirely by its members."
The church stresses that many services are free, including marriages. "What you pay for is the study of our Scientology scriptures to give you abilities, and you do this with the help of trained persons," Amicarelli said, insisting all information remains confidential.
Two Belgian members, Ute and Jean-Marie Surinx, estimate they spent nearly $30,000 in the last year on Scientology. But they said that included donations to the church's antidrug campaign and trips to Clearwater, where they studied several hours a day.
"Scientology has helped me a lot," says Ute Surinx, 52, who works for the European Parliament. "If I want to do a course, the staff members have to live on something. They need a building, they need to eat."
Surinx finds Clearwater - which draws Scientologists from all over the world - much friendlier and more accepting of the religion.
"Here, there's much more suspicion," she said. "Here, they think you should be a Catholic."
Church entrencheddespite legal woes
As the criminal case inches forward, the church is slowly moving ahead with renovations on three 19th century buildings that will house the largest Scientology church in western Europe.
The long-vacant property, on Brussels' upscale Boulevard de Waterloo, was bought in 2005 in the name of Belgian Buildings Acquisitions of Delaware. But attorney Alexis Deswaef said it became clear it was owned by Scientology during contentious negotiations over homeless squatters - including children - that the church was trying to evict.
Still in the design stage, the new Brussels church will be in walking distance of the center on sectarian organizations. The center's president, de Cordes, doubts Scientology will ever attract much of a following in Belgium.
"I wonder if they have not reached the peak," he said. "Some people may be interested in Scientology because of Tom Cruise or John Travolta" - two famous church members - "and that's it."