Devotees mix with doubters at Scientology ceremony

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The Independent Online

Tom Cruise was, unfortunately, absent, along with his partner and biggest recruit, Katie Holmes; and John Travolta, that other high-profile Hollywood convert to the Church of Scientology, was away filming.

So those who turned up in rain yesterday for the opening of its imposing new premises in London had to make do with a pipe band and the solid figure of Chief Superintendent Kevin Hurley, local divisional commander of the City of London Police.

There cannot have been many such occasions when Chief Superintendent Hurley has been greeted with such enthusiastic whooping from an audience, his image simultaneously magnified on huge screens.

Under massive red banners hanging from the front of the building and proclaiming DIANETICS - the underlying creed of the church - and SCIENTOLOGY, the officer was wildly applauded when he praised the "positive" work of its members in their anti-drugs work and their assistance in the wake of last year's 7 July bombings.

A similar reception also met speeches by Ian Luder, a City alderman and Dr Aftikhar Ayaz, member of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and honorary consul for Tuvalu. Although a regular speaker at Scientology events, the latter confessed he was not a member and when he made references to God at the end of his speech the applause suddenly faded and puzzled looks were exchanged underneath the umbrellas.

That is because Scientologists do not do God. They follow L Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who created the church in the 1950s and whose photograph, with him in a dodgy cravat, adorns their websites and literature.

Hubbard's Dianetics is a set of ideas, which the church claims will help people realise their full potential.

A small group of demonstrators holding signs quoting a 1984 High Court ruling in which a judge condemned the Scientologists as a "corrupt, sinister and dangerous cult", were kept at a distance by police. The protest leader, John Ritson, a computer manager, said: "People get sucked in by them. It's only when you have become very involved that they tell you about their belief in aliens, and then it's too late."

Typical of those in the crowd was Julie Sharp, 28, a shop assistant from Bournemouth. "The church gave me help at a point of turmoil in my life when both my parents had just died. I spend all my spare time working for them."

Also in the crowd was Hollywood actress Anne Archer, who played Michael Douglas's wife in Fatal Attraction. She was raised a Christian Scientist but joined the Church of Scientology in 1976.

The gleaming building in Queen Victoria Street dwarfs the more well-established but slightly careworn church of St Andrew By The Wardrobe next door, built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1695.

The Scientology centre has been converted from a former bible study centre at a reputed cost of £23m; their UK headquarters is a grand mansion near East Grinstead.

The beliefs

* Recruits are taught that man is immortal; his experience extends beyond more than one lifetime and he is capable of achieving higher states of awareness. The "dynamics of existence" dictate that success in life depends on understanding and harmonising eight elements, including spirituality, family, nature and the self. Drugs, chemicals and pollution contaminate mind and body. Former members of the church have reported that senior Scientologists are taught that many of an individual's problems are caused by the spirits of aliens that infest their bodies.

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