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A German eye on Scientology

The Economist, 1 February 1997


GERMANY is both embarrassed and sure that it ought not to be. The charges
are quite unfounded, groans the foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel. 
Chancellor Helmut Kohl, more self-assured, consigns the wilder accusations
to the dustbin. But any official reproach coming from America stings. So
it was with this week's barb from the State Department-for the third year
running but sharper than ever-that Germany is guilty of harassing a
religious sect, the American-based Scientology movement with its 30,000
German members. Scientology faces legal constraints in other countries
too, including France, Italy and Greece. But Germany cannot bring itself
to be relaxed about the movement. Moreover, the sect does its best to
provoke the Germans by harping on their country's treatment of Jews over
half a century ago. An over-the-top open letter recently written by
American entertainment celebrities contained the gross charge: 'In the
1930s it was the Jews. Now it is the Scientologists.'

The American government has disowned such stuff but remains puzzled. And,
indeed, the German approach to democracy needs defining.  Germany is, say
the practitioners in Bonn, 'a militant democracy'. This means that its
first job is to defend itself: failure to defend Germany's first
democracy, the Weimar Republic, brought Hitler. 

The front line of defence is a network of constitutional protection
agencies, well-manned outfits operating at both federal and state level
that track, and sometimes infiltrate, movements suspected of working
against Germany's thoroughly liberal constitution. These watchdogs are
open about their sleuthing. When they intend to keep an eye on extremists
of right or left, they say so. People or organisations currently being
watched include the anti-immigrant Republican Party and unabashed
communists from what used to be East Germany. 

The federal government has carefully avoided hounding Scientologists,
despite its contention, based on a court verdict, that the sect is a
dubious business outfit that traps its adherents. It confines itself to
refusing the sect the tax-exempt status of a church.  But individual
Lander (states) are less circumspect. God-fearing Bavaria has taken to
screening applicants for state jobs, in effect barring Scientologists. 
And its southern neighbour, Baden-Wurttemberg, keeps the sect under formal
observation. Confrontational, indeed. But a cooler attitude, many German
democrats would argue, might amount to the sin of constitutional neglect. 

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