U.S. Challenges German Stand on Scientology

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The State Department’s annual survey of human rights conditions around the world will contain expanded, toughened language criticizing Germany for restrictions on the Church of Scientology and its members, administration officials say.

The report, to be issued Wednesday, will chastise Germany for what a senior administration official called “a campaign of harassment and intimidation” against the controversial church. He said the United States, seeking to protect religious freedom, has urged Germany through diplomatic channels “not to prosecute people for wrong thinking” but has been rebuffed.

The German response is, “We won’t change our policy, no matter what you say,” a German diplomat here said. “You are a big country. You can afford to have militias and cults. We can’t.” He said Germany, with 80 million people in a Montana-size country and a unique sensitivity to the dangers of “extremism” because of its Nazi past, is obliged to limit activities of groups perceived as threats to national well-being.


The U.S.-German disagreement over Scientology is a rare irritant in America’s generally excellent relations with a key European ally. Although both sides agree it is hardly a major source of friction, the issue has a high decibel level because of the involvement of high-profile Scientologists such as actor Tom Cruise.

The subject is emotional also because of charges by the Scientologists that Germany’s treatment of them recalls the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews--a charge guaranteed to infuriate and pain Germans.

On Friday, the Church of Scientology in Germany filed a complaint with the European Commission on Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France, against the German government--claiming that the organization and its “parishioners” have been subjected to “a systematic campaign of discrimination . . . in violation of their human rights.”

Officials in Germany say they are empowered by the first article of the German Constitution to protect “the dignity of the individual,” a mandate widely interpreted here as a requirement to protect “vulnerable” people from religious cults.

The Clinton administration has been trying to walk a fine line, standing up for the principle of freedom of worship but distancing itself from the Scientologists’ denunciations of a democratic ally.

“We have criticized the Germans on this, but we aren’t going to support the Scientologists’ terror tactics against the German government,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said.


Burns criticized statements from church supporters likening the campaign against Scientology to the Nazis’ anti-Semitic programs, as did an open letter to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl earlier this month signed by 34 celebrities and published as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.

Burns and other officials said the issue is not whether Scientology is good or bad, benign or malevolent. They said the United States is obliged to support the church in the brawl between Germany and the Scientologists because German actions may have infringed on the rights of U.S. citizens who are Scientologists by encouraging a boycott of Cruise’s movies and restricting performances by jazz pianist Chick Corea.

The youth wing of the governing Christian Democratic Union organized boycotts of “Mission Impossible,” starring Cruise, last summer in several German states. And well-known Christian Democratic politicians have said publicly that Corea has no business playing in Germany, particularly not at concerts with official sponsorship.

During the “Mission Impossible” boycott, there were isolated reports of film posters and theaters being vandalized.

Scientology is a fast-growing international organization, founded in the 1950s by American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, whose writings remain the group’s guiding texts. The church claims 8 million members worldwide, including about 30,000 in Germany. The German government says the membership is smaller, perhaps between 10,000 and 20,000.

Scientology has long fought for legal acceptance as a religion and has succeeded in many countries, including the United States, where in 1993 it was given the same tax-exempt status as other religions.


To the German government, however, Scientology is not a legitimate religion but a greedy, cult-like organization built on “pseudo-science,” in which “membership can lead to psychological and physical dependency, to financial ruin and even to suicide,” according to a position paper distributed by the German Embassy here.

In Germany, the federal government has the power not only to decide whether organizations are churches or not, but it also handles tithing, in the form of payroll deductions at pre-determined amounts. Under this state-led system, members of organizations that do not get listed as authentic religions do not have complete guarantees of religious freedom.

The German position paper also says that “the German government has not taken any legislative action against the Scientology organization,” but some German state governments have. In heavily Catholic Bavaria, for instance, all applications for well-paid civil service jobs are screened for affiliation with the Church of Scientology. Those who admit to a connection are not hired.

The Scientologists say they are “blacklisted, boycotted, vilified, ostracized and threatened” because of their church membership.

Church of Scientology headquarters in Munich have documented more than 100 incidents in which members--and even Germans incorrectly “outed” as members--have been discriminated against, either by branches of the state, or by private organizations ranging from golf clubs to art galleries.

Many banks in Germany have policies against making loans to Scientologists, or letting Scientologists hold accounts. Newspapers in Germany refuse to accept advertising from companies owned by Scientologists. Teachers have been drummed out of their positions when parents have learned they practice Scientology outside the classroom.


Children have lost their places in private kindergartens when directors have learned that their parents are Scientologists.

The Christian Democrats have resolved to ban all Scientologists from the party on the grounds that their religion is incompatible with “Christian ethics.” The main opposition party, the Social Democrats, also reject Scientologist members, and even the Progressive Greens have taken actions against Scientology.

Times staff writer Mary Williams Walsh in Berlin contributed to this report.