John Cleary: Welcome to this, the first Religion Report. Scientology, the religion created by L. Ron Hubbard, a sometime science fiction writer in the early 1950s, and today lauded by devotees among the rich and famous and damned by critics for its cultic status.
Antagonism between German authorities and the Church of Scientology has boiled over into outright hostility. An open letter signed by a distinguished list of Hollywood film stars brought the issue to public attention and involved the United States government last week.
The letter accused the German government of treating church members as the Nazis treated the Jews in the 1930s. The United States State Department, in its annual report on human rights last week, tempered this claim, but nevertheless held that Scientologists in Germany had been unfairly targeted for criticism.
Sabina Weber, a spokeswoman for the Scientologists in Germany, explains what she believes members of her organisation have to fear.
Sabina Weber: When you're a Scientologist in Germany and you are faced with discriminations like your child in school is being harassed, or your child in the kindergarten is not allowed to play with his friends any more, or does not even get a place there, or if you're confronted with losing your job and we in the church, of course, get these not from just one single case, but various cases where people are spat at, they are beaten, they are harassed, they are being insulted; basically forms are being distributed where the government or the Chamber of Commerce or whoever, forwards the slogan 'Don't buy at Scientology businesses' or something like this.
Then of course you cannot help it, you feel reminded by the '30s, so of course we don't compare our situation with the Jews in the '40s or during the Holocaust etc. etc. But you also have to say you should be aware of the very beginnings of such a campaign, and these comparisons are absolutely convincing because you have the same language, you have the same accusations like longing for world power, not being a religion, infiltrating society, all these accusations were used in the same way against the Jewish community, and the reactions from the government were very similar. And you will find that there are only a few persons with strong connections to the established churches in Germany that are forwarding this campaign that are demanding to expel Scientologists from public positions, and the like.
John Cleary: German Scientologist Sabina Weber.
Well from someone directly involved, to a broader perspective. Steven Kent is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta, Canada, and a specialist in the study of alternative religions.
Steve, thanks for joining us. What is the substance of the German allegations?
Steven Kent: The substance of the German allegations are threefold. One, Germany is claiming that Scientology is an economic organisation operating under the cloak of religion; second the German government is claiming that Scientology is psychologically totalistic and controlling; and third, the German government is claiming that Scientology is totalitarian and anti-democratic.
These allegations have to be viewed in the context of what's going on in surrounding European countries. Just in the last few months and in France, 14 Scientologists were convicted of fraud-related charges and a 15th was convicted of involuntary manslaughter involving putting pressure on a person to take courses that apparently he couldn't afford and the person committed suicide.
Just in December, a Greek court ordered Scientology to leave the country. That case is under appeal. Germany is also aware that Scientology is making tremendous inroads in countries like Russia, it's applying its administrative technology in Albania; the Russian city of Perm, for example, which has over a million people, apparently is using Scientology technology to organise and run a lot of its government offices.
So Scientology is making tremendous inroads in a lot of places, especially in Iron Curtain countries, but it's also under significant scrutiny in a number of European countries near Germany. Germany is important in these debates because it has a unique history of experiencing national socialism, but also communism. Consequently it's unusually sensitive to what it considers to be anti-democratic, totalitarian ideological movements.
It also is pivotal because it's got contacts with a number of former countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc because of East Germany. Consequently, what goes on in Germany in many ways will set the pace for what goes on in a number of European countries.
John Cleary: So what are the US State Department's concerns about Germany in this context?
Steven Kent: The particular issues right now in Germany have to do with the US State Department's perception that Americans in Germany are not being able to exercise their right to practice their religion freely. Also there seems to be some financial reservation possibly behind the US State Department's position. One of the incidents that spurred the critical human rights evaluation of Germany was the unsuccessful boycott of Tom Cruise's movie this summer, 'Mission Impossible'. Tom Cruise, as you know, is a Scientologist and the youth wing of the German Democratic Union had tried to organise a boycott. The German market is extremely lucrative for American businesses, and within the first four days, ticket sales for 'Mission Impossible' went over 760,000 purchasers. So a lot of financial interests are also involved in the US State Department in what it perceives as its defence of American citizens' human rights overseas in Germany.
John Cleary: So the State Department has made no judgement of Scientology and its practices per se.
Steven Kent: It has not made any judgement of Scientology practices and this point is an important one. The German government has not responded harshly to the US Government's human rights evaluation. What it has done, however, in some press releases, is mention that alleged human rights abuses by Scientology are going on in the shores of the United States. Indeed in one set of allegations, very close to the Hollywood locals themselves.
These allegations that the German government are throwing back in its defence, involve claims that Scientology runs a penal colony for its high-ranking but deviant members.
John Cleary: It seems strange that the State Department have put sort of, if you like, sort of willing blinkers on themselves. What's your response to this approach by the State Department?
Steven Kent: Well much is at stake here, and if the German government is successful in getting the United Nations to initiate an international inquiry about Scientology's alleged human rights abuses, then the State Department runs the risk of looking very bad. A lot of critics have wondered why the State Department or why government officials have not investigated some of these rehabilitation camps. The one that gains mention in German government documents supposedly is surrounded with barbed wire, it's a heavily-armed camp, there's supposed to be ground sensors, hidden microphones and so on, and it really gives the impression that that facility is a concentration camp. And I don't use that word concentration camp lightly, but I've seen it in some the material written about these camps. In the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior Dr Gunter Bechstein refers to brainwashing and punishment.
John Cleary: Steven Kent. This line quality is awfully rough, I think we should probably end it there, but thank you, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada, Steven Kent.