Scientology efforts in Haiti raise questions for some

The church has helped organize four relief flights including the one headed by actor John Travolta.

Newsday, New York/January 27, 2010

John Travolta is best known for his roles in the 1970s television sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter" and films such as "Saturday Night Fever" and "Pulp Fiction."

But his piloting of his own Boeing 707 to bring relief supplies to Haiti this week is focusing attention on the Church of Scientology, to which he and other Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise belong, and its efforts to assist Haiti following the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The church has helped organize four relief flights including the one headed by Travolta. Scores of volunteers in yellow T-shirts have provided logistical support and ministered to the wounded and homeless.

The flights - including two from Kennedy Airport - are provoking criticism from some who contend the church is seeking good press to counteract its sometimes controversial image. But the church says that, like many other religions, it has been engaged in disaster relief work around the world for decades, including the current effort in Haiti.

Officials who have worked with Church of Scientology disaster volunteers "say nothing but great things about the volunteer ministers" the church sends, said John Carmichael, a spokesman for the church in the New York area, including one in Hicksville.

The church has 200,000 trained disaster relief volunteers worldwide who have responded to the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, wildfires in Australia and scores of other disasters, said Tommy Davis, a spokesman for the church's national headquarters in Los Angeles.

On the flights to Haiti, the group has transported doctors, nurses, medical supplies and food, along with some church volunteers, Davis said.

The volunteers engage mainly in logistical support such as making sure doctors get the medical supplies they need, or procuring and setting up tents for the homeless, he said.

Even critics, such as oft-quoted cult expert Rick Ross of Trenton, N.J., say the group's humanitarian efforts are "laudable." But he says sending volunteers in easily identifiable yellow T-shirts with the Scientology name, and engaging in practices such as its controversial touch therapy healing, "can be seen as milking a disaster for a photo opportunity."

Church leaders bristled at that. The church is "working in the trenches," Carmichael said. "This is the help people want."

The history of Scientology

The Church of Scientology was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954. It is based principally on his book, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health."

The church teaches that mankind is immortal and divine. It employs a number of processes including "auditing" aimed at cleansing "engrams" or negative unconscious mental images from people's minds said to prevent them living a happy and fulfilling life.

The church claims millions of adherents in the U.S. - and millions more worldwide. Critics have contended the membership figures are inflated. Some also consider Scientology a cult.

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