Scientologists face Paris ban

BBC News/February 23, 2002

The public prosecutor in France has accused the Church of Scientology of engaging in "mental manipulation" and called for it to be shut down in Paris.

The religious group, whose membership includes Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta, is currently on trial for attempted fraud and false advertising in its efforts to recruit and keep members.

State Prosecutor Christine Forey also requested a minimum 300,000 euro ($261,000) fine against the group which has 20,000 members in Paris.

The church has described the case as trumped up.

The trial, the first to be heard under tough new anti-cult legislation, was brought by three former Scientology members who accuse the organisation of harassing them after they had left.

A verdict will be delivered in May.

Commercial Enterprise

The BBC's Paris correspondent says the case could be crucial for the Scientology organisation, which has had an increasingly difficult relationship with the French authorities.

The French National Assembly classifies Scientology as a sect rather than a religion and the group could eventually be banned under the new legislation.

"This is about protecting potential victims. I ask you to think about the penalty of dissolution due to the methods used by Scientology," Ms Forey said.

She called the Church of Scientology "an essentially commercial enterprise," which offered members "the illusory promise of revival" in their lives.

"The methods of Scientology, its deceitful promises of results which call for large donations of money, amount to a form of mental manipulation," Ms Forey said.

She also requested a 12,000 euro ($10,400) fine and a 12-month suspended prison sentence for Marc Walter, the 61-year-old president of the church's Paris division.

Computer Files

The case centres on the experience of three former Church of Scientology members who say they were harassed by the group long after they had left.

According to them, the group sent them dozens of booklets and invitations, although they had been asked to be taken off mailing lists.

The church says it was a case of computer error and not a violation of civil liberties, as the prosecution alleged.

Although the church's members have been in court before in France this is the first time its very practices have been targeted.

Hate Campaign

Church of Scientology members have likened the trial to a witch hunt and say their faith is a religion like any other.

"This is a setup - the government is trying to destroy a religion. We are in an environment in France that's against religion and spirituality." said Marc Bromberg, one of the church's officials.

The church has submitted a complaint to the United Nations against France for "violation of human rights", claiming the group is the subject of a hate campaign.

The church is on a list of more than 200 groups which France considers to be dangerous, together with some other generally-recognised religions such as the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. It teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems.

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