Last Sunday, the German Protestant Church’s religious cult specialist called Tom Cruise the “Goebbels of Scientology.” This comparison of the War of the Worlds actor and the head of the Nazi propaganda machine is only the most recent example of a German official having harsh words for the Church of Scientology. Last month, a German Defense Ministry spokesman said Cruise couldn’t film his movie at military sites because the actor had “publicly professed to being a member of the Scientology cult.” (The ministry later reversed its position.) What’s Germany’s beef with Scientology, anyway?
Some German officials believe Scientology’s ideology is rooted in a kind of political extremism—a bit of a sensitive area for Germany since World War II. They also argue that Scientology is not a religion but a business, since local churches operate like franchises of the main organization.
No European nations outlaw Scientology, but many have given the group a hard time. Since the Church of Scientology established itself on the continent in the 1950s, it’s waged frequent legal battles to gain recognition as a religious organization. The group has aggressively pursued its rights, and this rubs some public officials the wrong way. Europe has a tradition of state churches, and religion is often a part of national identity. Scientology engages in active recruitment of potential church members. In that respect, it’s similar to another group that’s been the source of longstanding resentment in Germany: Jehovah’s Witnesses. (In 2005 the evangelical group finally won a 15-year fight in the city of Berlin to collect church taxes and construct buildings.)
Since 1997 Germany has conducted surveillance on the Church of Scientology, collecting publicly available information and questioning individual Scientologists. Some German states have stopped the practice in recent years, and in 2001 a Berlin court banned government spies from infiltrating the group. But Church of Scientology officials say that the government still taps the organization’s phones, monitors mail, and uses undercover agents. (The German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the federal intelligence agency, confirms that they do some monitoring of the church.)
German objections to Scientology have even shown up in civil service applications. A 1998 New York Times article reported that applicants for positions with the Bavarian state government had to state whether they had any connections to Scientology; those who wanted to join political parties, unions, and professional clubs had to answer similar questions. Doing business with Scientologists can be problematic, too. In 2000, the German government questioned whether a Windows 2000 tool developed by a Scientologist could be adopted by public agencies.
While Germany is Scientology’s most outspoken critic, other European nations have also been suspicious of the U.S.-based movement. France considered banning the church in 2000, saying in a government report that “when such organisations disrupt public order and violate human dignity, measures should be taken to dissolve them.” A few weeks ago, a Russian court shut down a Scientology center in St. Petersburg, saying that the group didn’t have a license for its “auditing” and “purification” activities.
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Explainer thanks J. Gordon Melton of the Center for Studies on New Religions.