Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Scientology comes to Israel

A renovated cinema is the centrepiece of the controversial church's attempt to rebrand its image internationally, writes Matthew Kalman in Jaffa, Israel

From the moment it opened in 1937, the soaring art deco façade of the Alhambra cinema in Jaffa became one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, its 1,000-seat auditorium patronized by Jews, Arabs and British Mandate officials alike.

Now, after decades of neglect, the complex has been renovated as the first public Middle East centre for the Church of Scientology, the controversial movement founded by writer and explorer L Ron Hubbard whose followers include John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

From the multi-media consoles in the foyer, through the dozen lecture halls in the academy upstairs, to the 450-seat auditorium beneath the ornamental moulded plaster ceiling, to the replica of Michaelangelo's mosaic in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome on the colonnaded roof terrace, the three-storey, 60,000-square-foot, multi-million-pound monolith is a gleaming, hi-tech cathedral to the teachings of Hubbard and his successor, David Miscavige. In one corner there is even a room designed as Hubbard's office in Middle Eastern style – a tribute to the founder, who died in 1986.

The Alhambra is the latest in a string of more than 50 similar centres around the world inaugurated by Mr Miscavige in recent years as part of his new Ideal Scientology Organization – known to movement insiders as the Ideal Org.

"We feel we have to answer properly the many questions that people have about Scientology and we feel we have not been really described properly so far," says Fabio Amicarelli, an Ideal Org spokesman. "Our door has always been open but now we are more open than ever and we are ready to show everything."

Passers-by looking at the colourful window displays of Hubbard's work translated into a myriad of languages are invited inside by eager church members in smart black trousers and pressed white shirts. In the foyer, they encounter a multi-media forest of screens and displays dedicated to the life and work of Hubbard and each of the 21 precepts dubbed "The Way to Happiness" that is the church's founding catechism.

"We believe that man is a spiritual being – this is the focus of the Scientology religion," says Amicarelli. "Man is basically good."

"The word 'Scientology' is a Greek-Latin fusion meaning 'Knowing how to know.' This creates a deep social commitment," he says. "When you study who you are, you develop a desire to improve conditions around you, to improve life around you."

The Scientologists have developed a range of community initiatives, including literacy and drug prevention, prisoner rehabilitation, human rights and volunteer disaster relief programmes. Some 500 videos chronicle the church's work around the world, highlighting anti-narcotics collaboration with law enforcement agencies in the US and the implementation of their Applied Scholastics pedagogical techniques in hundreds of schools through government education ministries in Denmark and other countries.

Visitors can sign up for courses after undergoing a personality test supervised by a confessor-counsellor known as an Auditor using an Electrometer, which the church claims can measure the negative effect of past experiences on the human mind.

Members can become more involved by enrolling in the college on the upper floor, and through more study at the church's main centres in the United States.

However, Scientologists have provoked ridicule and fear for most of the 40 years they have been active in Israel.

In 1987, an inter-ministerial committee on cults headed by former Deputy Minister of Education Miriam Ta'asa-Glazer, published a damning 500-page report recommending tighter restrictions on Scientology and other movements, but little was done. In 2011, the Ministry of Social Welfare commissioned a new report that recommended legislation banning cult activity. Nothing happened.

Now, Rachel Lichtenstein, director of the Israeli Centre For Cult Victims, says she is disappointed that Tel Aviv City Council approved the Alhambra.

"It shows there are still people in public positions who don't understand what cults are," she says. "It's very sad. I can understand the legal process and the city council saying it has no right to intervene because it's a private building that they purchased. But it's very sad that no-one was aware enough to get up and say something about what this cult of Scientology can do."

But Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv, says he had no grounds to withhold permission. "When somebody is doing something that is allowed by the law, I have to follow the law. That's it. It doesn't matter if I like it or don't like it. So long as they are operating within the law I cannot prevent them from operating in this country."

Speaking at the centre's opening in August, Mr Miscavige called the renovated Alhambra "a gift from the International Association of Scientologists to Israel," but this is disputed by Dani Lemberger, head of a former Scientology centre in Haifa.

Mr Lemberger was one of Scientology's main defenders before the Ta'sa-Glazer committee. Today, he is among the church's most outspoken critics. Mr Lemberg was excommunicated by the church last summer and declared a "suppressive person" after visiting Mr Miscavige's former deputy, who left the church several years ago. All those in contact with him in Haifa, including his wife, his staff and followers, have also been banned.

Mr Lemberger says the building, purchased and renovated for more than £10 million, is owned by the Scientology International Reserves Trust, a religious non-profit group registered in East Grinstead, Sussex.

"It doesn't belong to anybody in Israel," says Mr Lemberger. "This new Ideal Org is Miscavige's creation, spending large amounts of donated money for expensive buildings around the world ultimately controlled by him."

"The Church of Scientology under Miscavige has become a cult," says Mr Lemberger. "It has become something that exploits people, promises you eternity, happiness, immortality, if only you follow the path – and along the path you pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars, for the services and for all these donations which is totally and absolutely contrary to what Hubbard said and wrote and asked that we do."

Mr Amicarelli shrugs off the criticism. "This centre is a big service to the city," he says. "This building was a dump. It was abandoned. Now this landmark has been restored and turned into a community centre."