The US-based Church of Scientology opened a giant new center in Berlin Saturday, sparking fears that the hotly disputed group is trying to muscle in on German politics.
Hundreds of adherents to Scientology gathered outside the controversial organization's new center in Berlin's central Charlottenburg district for the opening on Saturday. A small number of protesters were also there, one of whom held a sign reading "Brainwashing, No Thank You."
Scientology, whose followers include powerful Hollywood film stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta, remodeled a six-storey, 4,000-square-meter (43,000-square-foot) building to boost its profile in the German capital.
Opponents say the group, which has rapidly expanded in Europe in recent years, tries to lure impressionable young people with aggressive recruitment methods and harasses critics.
An internal Church of Scientology document about the gleaming new center in Berlin obtained by AFP indicated that the group sought not only new members but also political influence in Germany.
"In order to implement our planetary salvation campaigns, we must have access to the highest levels of the German government in Berlin," it said.
Founded in the United States in 1954 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology was accorded the status of religion there in 1993 and enjoys exemption from paying taxes.
But it is regarded with suspicion in many European countries -- including Belgium, France, Germany and Greece -- where authorities contend its leaders seek economic gain and use totalitarian methods to keep supporters in line.
German authorities say between 5,000 and 6,000 Scientologists live in the country while the Los Angeles-based organization cites 30,000.
The group is under observation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and several state security watchdogs, although not by the Berlin authorities following a successful court challenge by the group.
The secretary general of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, Ronald Pofalla, said the left-leaning government in Berlin had made a serious mistake by allowing the new center to open.
"It is intolerable that Scientology can throw its weight around in the capital of Germany," he said.
The chairman of the Lutheran Church in Germany, Wolfgang Huber, said Scientology had nothing to do with religion "and certainly nothing to do with Christianity," and should not enjoy the protection of the state. "They want to pressure people and do business under the cloak of religion," he told the Berlin daily B.Z., adding that Scientology aimed to make its followers into "perfect machines."
A Scientology expert with the Hamburg interior ministry, Ursula Caberta, said the group aimed to undermine German democracy with a "cynical ideology."
"They want to be represented in all the capitals of Europe," Caberta said, noting that the organization has already established centers in Madrid, London and Brussels.
Citizens, not the state should decide, some say
A Scientology spokesman in Berlin, however, denied in a brief statement that the group planned to meddle in political affairs.
And the US State Department has frequently criticized the policies of Belgium, France and Germany for its "discrimination against minority religions," including Scientology.
Despite deep skepticism about Scientology in Germany, some observers have argued against state suppression of the group, saying that German citizens should be trusted to discover any faults of the organization on their own.
"If, for example, school children are being targeted for indoctrination with tutoring courses offered by Scientology then the state must protect the weak," Berlin's daily Tagesspiegel wrote in an editorial this week.
"Otherwise the public's most powerful weapon is democracy. Nothing more and nothing less."
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