Scientology gets down to business in Berlin By Clive Freeman

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Monday January 15, 2007

By Clive Freeman, Berlin- Coloured tinfoil still glittered in trees flanking the "new" six-storey Church of Scientology centre Monday, following the weekend celebrations marking the official opening of the premises in Berlin's down-town Charlottenburg district at the weekend. But that was about the only splash of colour remaining, as Scientology staff, kitted out in identically-coloured sombre uniforms, assembled in ground-floor rooms at the start of their first working day at the premises.

A glass and metal foyer featuring interactive videos on its activities and displaying books and DVDs on its founder, the late science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, has already been opened to the public.

Scientology spokesman Frank Busch says the organization aims to help Berlin, "mainly in social areas such as the fight against drug abuse and violence among young people."

He claimed there was an international programme to open Scientology centres in capital cities around the world. "A new building was inaugurated in London three months ago," said Busch, when explaining that centres had also opened in Madrid and Brussels in recent years.

Ursula Caberta, a Scientology expert employed in the Hamburg interior ministry claims the group aims to "undermine German democracy with its cynical ideology" - a charge dismissed by Scientology officials.

The organization has "no plans to meddle in political affairs," replies spokesman Busch, adding, "we are a religious community."

There was no rush of "customers" at the Scientology premises Monday. Mid-morning an elderly Berliner armed with a walking stick, paused to peer at the dark-suited Scientology members moving about the building. "A rum organization," he muttered. "They call themselves a church, but conduct themselves more like big business operatives."

A Berlin advisor on religious sects was quoted in Berlin's daily Tagesspiegel newspaper as saying the police had already received one complaint of Scientology workers harassing passers-by with religious literature.

Helmut Galaske, 67, whose home is near the Scientology building, said he'd warned off its workers when they tried striking up a conversation with him - albeit, he claimed, without indicating for whom they were working.

At the city's Tribune Theatre, a few yards away, a warning posted at the entrance read: "Scientology staff are forbidden from entering these premises." Staff at the theatre had become alarmed at the pushy manner of its workers.

Scientology's decision to locate in the capital has drawn a mixed reaction from official quarters in Berlin.

The nation's domestic intelligence agency - the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, warned in its most recent annual report that there was "substantial evidence that Scientology is involved in activities against the free democratic order."

On the other hand, Berlin's Interior Minister Erhart Koerting, is more cautious. He claims court decisions in 2001 and 2003 "did not allow the intelligence agency to monitor the Church of Scientology," he claimed.

"Should there be a new evidence that the group is engaging in unconstitutional activities, we will discuss with the federal government how we can proceed," he told Berlin media.

Koerting does view Scientology as dangerous because it "operates in the grey area between religion, commerce and sects," but that, he argues, is not a sufficient reason for banning the organization. A better approach, he feels, would be to "educate the public about the ideology behind the church."

The Los Angeles-based Scientology, founded in 1954 by US writer Hubbard, has around eight million members worldwide, among them Hollywood celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Accorded religious status in 1993, it enjoys exemption from paying taxes in the US. But in many countries in Europe its activities have long stirred controversy. German officials speak of between 5,000 and 6,000 Scientologists living in the country, whereas the Los Angeles- based organization puts the figure at 30,000.

Wolfgang Huber, the head of the Lutheran Church in Germany, maintains that Scientology has nothing to do with religion and "certainly not with Christianity. They want to pressure people and do business under the cloak of religion," Huber told the tabloid daily BZ newspaper, when adding the aim was to make its followers into "perfect machines."

Footnote: More than 1,000 guests, including Hollywood actress Anne Archer, attended the opening of the Centre on Saturday. A small number of protestors were also there, including one with a sign reading "Brainwashing? No Thank You."

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency