An apparently widening gap between American and European perceptions of Scientology will be underlined today when the US State Department publishes a report accusing Germany of harassing and intimidating the church. The department is releasing its annual survey of human rights world-wide just two weeks after a group of celebrities including Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman and Gore Vidal annoyed Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government by comparing Germany's treatment of Scientologists with Nazi persecution of the Jews.
State Department officials dismiss that comparison as far-fetched but Nicholas Burns, the department spokesman, said on Monday that "Scientologists in Germany are being discriminated against merely as a result of their belonging to that organisation, not because ... of any actions they've taken".
A review of recent court judgments shows Germany is not the only country where Scientologists are falling foul of the authorities. A Greek judge recently ordered the closure of a Scientology group, ruling that it had misrepresented itself as a non-profit, public-interest organisation, and had made money and put people's health at risk.
Scientology is not officially suppressed in any European Union country but specific laws and court decisions sometimes go against members. Thus a court in Lyons recently jailed a French Scientologist for 18 months for causing the suicide of a member who had no money to pay for church courses. France and Denmark revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1985, and Bavaria has passed a law banning Scientologists from holding public jobs such as teaching posts.
The church says more than 36 German courts have held that Scientology is a religion entitled to constitutional protection. However, the church last week filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that Bonn has ignored the courts and continues to discriminate against members.
Scientology's image has become increasingly respectable in the US, especially since the Internal Revenue Service recognised it as a tax-exempt religion in 1993. This was the year when the State Department first raised concerns in its annual report about Germany's treatment of church members.
The latest report reproves Germany for what one US official called "harassment and intimidation".
A rebuttal by the German embassy in Washington said Bonn believed Scientology's "pseudo-scientific courses can seriously jeopardise individuals' mental and physical health, and that it exploits its members".
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