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Scientology's secret scriptures are revealed on the Internet

The Church of Scientology is fighting a legal battle against dissident members who have transmitted the church's secret scriptures on the Internet world-wide computer link.

The Los Angeles-based church, founded by the science- fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1954, restricts access to its religious texts until members pay thousands of dollars - sometimes forfeiting their life-savings - for the privilege of spiritual growth.

In a suit filed in Los Angeles last week the organisation accused Arnaldo Lerma, a former missionary of the church, of copyright infringement and trade-secret misappropriation for electronically posting the 136-page text. The teachings have become hot property. After Mr Lerma, 44, posted the teachings on 31 July on the Usenet discussion group "alt.religion.scientology", the material instantaneously became available all over the world.

In court papers the church alleged Mr Lerma had stolen the documents before posting them in cyberspace. Last Friday federal marshals confiscated his computer equipment. "They even took my [computer] mouse and modem," said Mr Lerma, who calls himself a "21st-century blacksmith".

"You have to jump through a lot of expensive hoops to get access to this," said Mr Lerma, a member of the church between 1968 and 1977. "This is the big secret at the end of the rainbow." In February another former member in California was sued for posting material about the church.

According to the texts the Scientologists, who are estimated to have anywhere between 50,000 and 8 million members, aim "to bring an individual to an understanding of himself and his life as a spiritual being".

Helena Kobrin, a lawyer for the Religious Technology Center, which holds the Scientologists' copyrights, said that other suits could follow. "There are people out there who think the Internet has created a medium where rules go away."

The case has caused outrage among Scientology dissidents on the forum that was set up in 1991 to "expose" the church. One critic in Arizona said: "A church that won't tell you what they teach unless you pay them? Most religions are happy to have you spread their gospel far and wide.''