When it comes to controversy, the Church of Scientology is no stranger. Is it a money-grabbing, unscrupulous, brainwashing organization? Or is it a bona fide religion? And in Western Europe, has the church fallen victim to government and legal harassment made worse by a hostile media?

Those questions have surfaced in relation to recent developments in five of the 15 European Union nations--France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Greece. Each has decided to wage war against Scientology and other so-called "cults"--most of which are simply new religious movements or groups new to these nations.

These religious groups--many of them quite small in size--have been placed on "cult" lists or targeted by state-sponsored "information and prevention campaigns."

Group members complain that they are being defamed. As a result, they say, they are losing reputations, jobs or promotions, visitation rights or child custody in divorce settlements, cannot rent space for religious ceremonies and are subject to police surveillance.

The ideological forces behind this strategy vary from one nation to the next. In France and Belgium, anti-religious secular humanists, driven by their personal fight against "religious obscurantism" and concern over preserving French culture, play an influential role in the anti-sect war.

In German-speaking countries, established religions are involved in the anti-cult policies, apparently in an attempt to defend their privileged positions against upstart competitors in today's changing religious market. The situation is similar in Greece, where the Orthodox Church is leading the charge against the new groups.

Much of the opposition is a simple distaste for cultural invasions-in this case involving religious thought--from America and Asia, where most of the new groups, or their foundational beliefs, originated.

In France, the issue is particularly hot right now because of a recent government report that urged the outright dissolution of the Church of Scientology.

But why France, a nation generally thought of as a paradigm of Western liberal democracy?

The answer can be found in France's political will to make itself conspicuous, to show and protect its cultural identify, difference and leadership, not only within its linguistic zone of influence but also in Central and Eastern Europe--even if it means that a state that prides itself on its secular character has to align itself with its surviving religious establishment. In France, the "cult issue" has moved from being a societal phenomenon scrutinized by a few sociologists of religion to the being a full-blown and contentious public, political and diplomatic issue.

France has seen several trials in Paris, Lyon and Marseilles. In some cases, Scientology leaders have been sentenced either to a prison term or to fines.

When documents disappeared from court files during one case, prominent anti-cult figures used the media to accuse Scientology of theft. The disappearance later turned out to be due to administrative negligence.

The chairman of the government's Mission for the Fight against Cults (MILS), Alain Vivien, was recently filmed by French TV with a bodyguard, claiming that his life had been threatened by cults, particularly Scientology.

On Dec. 16, 1999 the French Senate unanimously approved a draft law under the heading "Fighting Cults" that amends a 1936 French law against paramilitary groups. If adopted by the National Assembly, this law will allow the government, under the guise of fighting against cults, to dissolve any group or organization, religious or not, found guilty at least twice of a variety of criminal offenses.

Under this new legal framework, the Roman Catholic Church itself could be dissolved on the grounds of repeated pedophilia cases--although that's highly unlikely given the church's secure place in the French religious establishment.

On Feb. 7, MILS released its first report on the cult issue in France and explicitly asked for the dissolution of Scientology and the Order of the Solar Temple, whose leaders and dozens of members died in 1994 in homicide-suicide operations carried out in Canada, Switzerland and France.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, last fall 120 officers of the anti-terrorist brigade searched Scientology offices for 12 hours. The private homes of church leaders in Belgium and France were simultaneously searched in a joint operation carried out by Belgian and French police. Computers were removed along with files containing lists of members. Fifteen people were questioned, but no one has been charged. The case is pending.

Germany's "Enquiry Commission" also singled out Scientology, describing it as a "political extremist" movement that should be kept under official surveillance.

Following the arrest of a German intelligence officer who was trying to collect secret data about Scientology in Switzerland, it became clear that surveillance included infiltration, some of it across international borders.