Scientology: Media blitz launched in modern religious war

Germany has become alarmed at the success of the Church of Scientology's propaganda campaign in the US. Angered by the Nazi slur, Bonn is about to launch a media blitz of its own, reports Imre Karacs.

The gloves are off. The German government is preparing an "information offensive" in the US against its greatest adversary, the Church of Scientology. The full battle plans are currently being drawn up in the foreign ministry in Bonn, and the first missiles will strike at the heart of America in the "very near future".

The embassy in Washington, which has kept aloof from the skirmishes of the past year, has been ordered to join the fray. Complaining of a "huge lack of awareness" among US politicians, Klaus Kinkel, the foreign minister, has instructed his ambassador to start spinning US decision-makers and opinion-formers.

"Through our embassy and through the media, we shall try to spread information through America so that these false assertions do not surface in the future," Mr Kinkel told yesterday's Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper.

Mr Kinkel was shocked to discover during a tour of the US last week that many American politicians had accepted uncritically the Scientologists' assertion of "religious persecution in Germany". Germany's image reached its nadir on Sunday, when the US Congress took a vote on a motion condemning Bonn's treatment of "minority religions".

The Church of Scientology is not recognised as a religion by the German government, and is therefore not entitled to tax-free status. With the support of all main political parties, the government in Bonn has placed the sect under observation, in order to assess whether it seeks to subvert the country's democratic constitution.

Several other European countries have refused to extend Scientologists the full "church" status, but Germany has gone further than most in trying to stifle the sect's activities. In several lander, moves are afoot to ban Scientologists from public service. In a series of pamphlets explaining its case, Bonn has accused the Scientologists of being nothing more than a profit-driven commercial organisation, whose members are sucked in gradually and then prevented from leaving. The "church" claims 30,000 members in Germany.

Sunday's vote in Congress was defeated, but not by the margin Germany and the US administration had hoped for. The 101 votes in support were immediately seized on by the sect as a victory.

"I find it a very impressive number," said Helmuth Blobaum, President of the Church of Scientology in Germany. "It shows a lot of people are very concerned about what is happening to religious minorities in Germany."

Friends of Germany in the US establishment were exasperated. "I think it is important that we do not have Tom Cruise and John Travolta setting foreign policy in this country, and I think that is the driving factor behind this legislation," commented Doug Bereuter, a Republican Congressman. Cruise and Travolta, both prominent Scientologists, have been spearheading the campaign against Germany. They were among 34 Hollywood personalities who signed an "open letter" addressed to Chancellor Helmut Kohl earlier this year.

Their statement, published as a full-page advert in the International Herald Tribune, drew on perceived parallels between the Nazi persecution of Jews and the current treatment of Scientologists. "Like the book burning of the 1930s - your party has organised boycotts and seeks to ban performances of Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Chick Corea and any other artist who believe in Scientology," they wrote.

"Extremists of your party should not be permitted to believe that the rest of the world will look the other way. Not this time."

True to their promise, the rest of the world - meaning the US - has been bombarded with this kind of enlightenment ever since. The sect is promising to bring the motion back to Congress later this year, and meanwhile has other stunts up its sleeve.

The best so far is the report, fed to the New York Times last week, that Florida authorities had granted a German Scientologist "political asylum". That would have been a massive propaganda coup for the sect, but so far both the US and German authorities have been unable to confirm the story. Its source: the Church of Scientology.

But some claims do contain an element of truth. The "boycott" of Tom Cruise, for instance, consisted of no more than a group of young Christian Democrats distributing leaflets outside cinemas showing his film, Mission Impossible. But Chick Corea was indeed prevented from performing at a publicly-funded concert in Bavaria because he was a Scientologist.

The Germans argue that, precisely because of their history, they are duty-bound to defend democracy with greater vigilance than might be acceptable in the Land of the Free. The mere suspicion that Scientologists might be trying to subvert public life is justification enough for the government to keep a close watch on the sect.

This is the message that Bonn will now hope to convey, presumably with a little more efficiency and finesse than in the past.