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Stars accuse Germany of persecuting Scientologists

The Times, 10 January 1997

From Roger Boyes in Bonn

DUSTIN HOFFMAN, Goldie Hawn and other Hollywood stars joined forces with top film producers, directors and writers yesterday to attack German discrimination against Scientologists, comparing Bonn's policies to Hitler's treatment of the Jews.

The broadside from Tinseltown came in an open letter to Helmut Kohl which the German Chancellor rejected yesterday. The 34 signatories, Herr Kohl said, "have no idea about Germany and do not want to learn about the country; otherwise they would never have dreamt up something like this".

The letter, published in a full-page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune, seemed to signal an all-out publicity offensive on behalf of the Scientologists. "We implore you to bring an end to this shameful pattern of organised persecution," the stars said. "It is a disgrace to the German nation."

The signatories said that they were not Scientologists. Film stars such as Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta, who are members of the Church of Scientology, have already protested about what they regard as persecution. But as German authorities consider whether to monitor Scientologists with the help of plainclothes police, and as Scientologists are excluded from some Civil Service jobs, so the anger of the Hollywood establishment has increased.

"These acts are intolerable in any country that conceives of itself as a modern democracy. This organised oppression is beginning to sound familiar ... like the Germany of 1936 rather than 1996. It should be stopped now, before it spreads and increases in virulence as it did before."

The letter was signed not only by Mr Hoffman and Ms Hawn, both of whom have films showing in German cinemas, but also by Oliver Stone, the director, Gore Vidal and Mario Puzo, the writers, Larry King, the CNN talkshow host, and producers such as Aaron Spelling and Cherry Lansing.

The appeal was directed to Herr Kohl partly because he is chairman of the Christian Democratic party, which has been the most energetic in combating Scientology.

The youth wing of his party organised a boycott of the film Mission: Impossible because its leading actor and co-producer was Cruise. Chick Corea, the American jazz pianist, had to cancel his performance at a state-sponsored concert in Stuttgart because of his association with Scientology.

The protesting Hollywood stars compared such boycotts and bans with the Nazi book-burnings of the 1930s. Edmund Stoiber, Bavaria's conservative Prime Minister, has described Scientology as a "subversive, intolerant, racist organisation that wants to replace our society with a totalitarian regime". From last November, applicants for jobs in Bavaria's Civil Service have been questioned about their links to Scientology and are rejected if they are associated with the group.

Other regional politicians have also accused the sect of being a danger to German society and have called for the group to be put under surveillance or even banned. However, the country's 16 regional interior ministers have stopped short of such drastic measures and have called for detailed reports on the sect's activities before making a decision.

There are about 30,000 members of the "Scientology Church Germany" which is not accepted by the German authorities as a legitimate church or religion. In 1995 a court in Kassel ruled that Scientology was a business organisation. "The spiritual content and the outside appearance of the community should reflect its religious nature. But this is not the case with the Scientology Church Germany, which in reality is engaged in trade," the court ruling said.

Both sides in this increasingly acrimonious dispute invoke the Nazi past. Ursula Caberta, director of a Hamburg-based taskforce investigating Scientology, said that before she got involved in the project she used to think "if you are stupid enough to believe in Scientology, that's your problem.

"But now I truly believe if you analyse [L. Ron] Hubbard [the founder of Scientology] and his writings, you will see that he is promoting the idea of a totalitarian state and of the bermensch [the superman]. Instead of talking about Aryans, as Hitler did, he is talking about Scientologists. Because of our history we have to be much more careful about this kind of thing spreading."

The star-studded letter writers approached the problem >from the opposite corner yesterday. "In the Germany of the 1930s," they wrote, "Hitler made religious intolerance official government policy. Jews were at first marginalised, then excluded from many activities, then vilified and ultimately subjected to unspeakable horrors ... in the 1930s, it was the Jews. Today it is the Scientologists."

When Cruise and other Scientologist stars made similar links in newspaper advertisements last year, Ignaz Bubis, the head of the Jewish community in Germany, described such claims as offensive and insulting to millions of Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The US State Department also distanced itself from the pro-Scientology advertisements, saying: "This is an outrageous charge against the German Government by an American group. It bears no resemblance to the facts of what is going on there."

The Scientologists have operated uneasily in Germany since the 1970s, but despite occasional frictions, there has been nothing to match the intensity of the present row. Several German Cabinet ministers have become involved in the campaign. Claudia Nolte, the Family Affairs Minister, argues that "Scientology aims for world domination and the destruction of our society".

The Scientologists deny that they have any political aims. They say that their critics are misinformed and that religious freedom is under threat.

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