In the temples of Hollywood, they like to look after the stars of Scientology

The sect of the `Thetans' has acquired a kind of respectability in the US, says David Usborne
A constellation of Hollywood stars and leading producers and directors sign a joint letter defending a religious group which has frequently been derided as a cult and pinning accusations of Nazism on modern Germany - and the reaction in America is, shall we say, muted. It barely registers, in fact.

That - the absence of surprise and debate in the United States - is almost more remarkable than the act itself. Is the American media intimidated by this group's fearsome reputation for taking out lawsuits or is what happened here simply not considered especially unusual?

We are talking, of course, about the full-page advertisement placed this week in the International Herald Tribune lambasting the German government for its intolerance of the Church of Scientology. Signed by such figures as Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn, Mario Puzo and Aaron Spelling, it explicitly evoked the Nazi atrocities against the Jews six decades ago and the Holocaust.

The letter's author was Bertram Fields, a well-known lawyer to the stars. A Jew, he is not a Scientologist and nor are the 33 other signatories. He has said that he was acting on a conviction that Scientologists were a persecuted minority in Germany who needed protection.

"I decided that if I was going to stand by my principles, I had to do something about this," he said. "I sent a detailed letter to a number of my friends, in addition to a copy of this letter, and asked if they would sign it. Surprisingly, most of the people I sent it to agreed." Scientology would seem like a risky cause for public figures to become associated with. Founded by the American science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard (LRH to church members) in the Fifties, the church has suffered always from the perception of outsiders that it is both batty in its beliefs and manipulative and dangerous in its recruiting and use of members' money.

The doctrine was laid out in Hubbard's 1950 book, Dianetics. The church promises those who join that it will "clear" their spirits through "auditing". Hubbard taught his followers that they were vessels for immortal souls called Thetans. The enemy of Thetans are Engrams, which can be purged by auditing. A device called the E-meter measures your Engram level.

Scientologists have come under public assault in several countries other than Germany, notably in France, Canada and the US. The sect's standing in America in recent years, however, has recovered somewhat. In part this is because of its successful programmes for instance on drug abuse and graffiti.

It is in Hollywood itself, however, that the church has undoubtedly scored biggest. In the studios of La-La Land, Scientology has become almost trendy. It does not hurt, of course, that among its disciples are the likes of Tom Cruise, his wife, Nicole Kidman, and the other star du jour, John Travolta. Others said either to support the church or to be full members of it are Demi Moore, Priscilla Presley, Kirstie Alley and Shirley Maclaine.

Some Germans boycotted Tom Cruise's last blockbuster, Mission: Impossible, because of his beliefs. Mr Cruise is a mighty property, however, whom everyone in the industry needs to be seen to be supporting. And there is Mr Travolta. He has publicly attributed his return to success to his membership of the Church of Scientology.

Helmut Kohl may fulminate and sensible thinkers in Europe may be aghast. The friends of Mr Fields - or friends, rather, of Mr Cruise and Mr Travolta - are not likely to be harbouring regrets.

David Aaronovitch, page 15