A running battle between German government officials and the Church of Scientology escalated this week, with 34 prominent Americans from the entertainment industry denouncing Germany for allegedly treating Scientologists as it treated the Jews in 1936, and the German foreign minister accusing the celebrities of “falsifying history.”
“It’s out of the question that there’s persecution of Scientology in Germany,” Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel told the newspaper Bild in a front-page article printed Friday. “When Scientology compares its treatment in Germany to the Holocaust, it’s falsifying history and offending the sensibilities of the victims of Nazism.”
Kinkel and a number of other German politicians were responding to an open letter to Chancellor Helmut Kohl published Thursday as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.
The letter, signed by such film stars as Dustin Hoffman and Goldie Hawn, television host Larry King, and novelists Mario Puzo and Gore Vidal, accused the German government of such “disgraceful” acts as excluding children from public schools because their parents are Scientologists.
Scientologists have been under fire in Germany in recent months. A youth wing of Kohl’s Christian Democratic Party made an unsuccessful attempt to boycott the film “Mission: Impossible” because its star and co-producer, Tom Cruise, is a Scientologist. Two German banks announced that they would no longer accept accounts in the name of the Church of Scientology, and existing accounts in several towns were closed. And the southern state of Bavaria began to screen all applicants for civil service jobs--the most secure and benefit-rich jobs in Germany--for membership in the Church of Scientology.
In their open letter to Kohl, the Hollywood group wrote: “In the 1930s, Hitler made religious intolerance official government policy.” The letter recalled that as a result, Jews were at first discriminated against, “then vilified and ultimately subjected to unspeakable horrors.”
“The world stood by in silence,” the letter continued. “This time, voices will be raised.”
Thursday, in one of his periodic news conferences in Bonn, Kohl responded to the open letter the way he characteristically answers attacks: by dismissing it as wrongheaded and ignorant.
“They don’t know anything about Germany, and they don’t want to either,” Kohl said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t have talked such rubbish.”
The German counterattacks did not end with Kohl’s put-down. Bild, a down-market tabloid that is the most widely read newspaper in Germany, collected reactions not only from Foreign Minister Kinkel but also from the labor and family affairs ministers and the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, Germany’s largest opposition party.
“To compare our monitoring of Scientology’s wheelings and dealings with the methods of Hitler shows a great tastelessness with respect to the victims of Auschwitz,” Labor Minister Norbert Bluem was quoted as saying. “This only demonstrates how unscrupulously Scientology manages its affairs.”
In Los Angeles, Scientology President Heber C. Jentzsch defended the group’s claim of religious persecution. He said that as recently as November, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission condemned the German government for, among other things, denying civil service jobs to Scientologists.
Jentzsch noted that Adolf Hitler issued a decree on April 7, 1933, denying civil service jobs to non-Aryans. “Kinkel’s perception of history has no rearview mirror,” Jentzsch said.
The open letter’s signatories wrote that they are not Scientologists but could not “just look the other way while this appalling situation continues and grows.”
The ad was paid for by Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Bertram Fields, one of whose clients is Cruise. Field said he became concerned about Germany’s treatment of Scientologists in August, when members of Kohl’s party tried to organize the “Mission: Impossible” boycott.
Reached Friday afternoon at his Century City office, Fields said his prominent client had nothing to do with the letter.
“I didn’t ask him to sign the letter,” Fields said. “I didn’t even discuss it with him.
“We’re not advocating Scientology; not one Scientologist signed that letter. We’re just concerned about what’s happening.”
In response to the reaction from German officials, Fields said: “Even though they use a lot of terms like ‘rubbish,’ not one single fact is stated denying the factual allegations in our letter. They can’t deny them because they are true.
“They’re just politicians spouting the party line. No one has compared this to Auschwitz. We’re talking about what happened to Jews in the early part of the Nazi regime, when they were barred from public life. That’s just the kind of thing that is happening to Scientologists today. We’re not saying they’re sending people to death camps; we’re saying let’s not let it get started.”
Unlike the United States, which guarantees religious freedom in part by strict separation of church and state, Germany formally registers churches and their members, even collecting their offerings for them through payroll deductions. The Church of Scientology doesn’t qualify for official recognition and therefore is excluded from Germany’s constitutional protections for religious freedom.
In December, the Kohl government said it was setting up a central office to coordinate federal and state efforts against Scientology. Interior Minister Manfred Kanther has asked that the church be put under surveillance as an extremist organization.
Federal and state officials argue that Scientology needs to be controlled because it is at best a business masquerading as a church, at worst a dangerous cult. They say the church set up at least 20 real estate brokerage firms in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall to exploit skyrocketing property values when Western capital began to pour into the former East Berlin.
The Scientologists, critics allege, have pressured unsuspecting former East Germans into buying apartments at predatory prices, then pumped the money back into the church.
From its inception, Scientology has been controversial. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service did not agree until 1993 that it can be considered a religious organization. Disaffected former Scientologists and others consider it a cult and say that members can spend huge sums as they follow Scientology principles. Devoted followers, however, say that it has changed their lives for the better.
Developed by the late L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology is what its adherents call an applied religious philosophy that holds that humans are basically good. It offers various techniques and principles that Scientologists say enable followers to improve their lives.
Cruise has said that Scientology’s techniques helped him overcome dyslexia. Other celebrities who have been associated with Scientology include John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie Presley, Nicole Kidman, Mimi Rogers, Kirstie Alley and Anne Archer.
Times staff writer Larry B. Stammer in Los Angeles contributed to this report.