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.

In Greece, Scientology also has been prosecuted. In 1997, the Appeal Court of Athens upheld a former ruling that the church should be disbanded because the association had allegedly engaged in proselytism, spying and unapproved business activities.

Greece has a long tradition of persecution against minority religions. Under pressure of the Orthodox Church, the state drafted a Constitution and adopted anti-proselytism laws in 1938-39 under the dictatorship of General Metaxas that allowed the Orthodox Church to prosecute Protestant or Catholic missionaries.

The Church of Scientology grabs headlines because of its controversial reputation and aggressive responses to government policies it considers problematic. But Western Europe's anti-cult push involves many more groups than just Scientology. To varying degrees, virtually every new or small religious entity in Western Europe has become caught up in the issue.

In France, Jehovah's Witnesses, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and some non-Christian groups have been harassed for several years by the tax authorities. The French Jehovah's Witnesses have been ordered to pay a 60 percent tax on donations made by more than 200,000 believers over the last four years. The amount involved is about $50 million.

Also in France, a fringe Catholic group has been portrayed by the media as dangerous and harmful and a court case is pending. Every week, French TV shows reports about sects listed by the MILS, ostensibly to "educate" the public about the dangers of cults.

In Belgium, Charismatics Christians, Satmar Hasidim Jews and more than 20 Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and missionary agencies are suspected of harmful religious practices. About 200 movements are under police surveillance. Each time cult crackdowns are carried out, anti-terrorist officers and magistrates are involved.

In a number of pending Belgian court cases, leaders of small religious groups have been arrested and imprisoned for three to nine weeks. In such cases computers and membership lists of members have been confiscated--and persons on the lists have been questioned.

In all five nations pushing the anti-cult movement, blacklisting, police surveillance and the use of an anti-terrorist police, along with accompanying media coverage, reinforce a negative image of all small religious groups.

France is likely to continue to practice cultural protectionism. Its crusade against European unification and "foreign cults" is one and the same war. The French republic, secular humanist though it may be, is in the end, no different from the Orthodox Church of Greece. Both serve as watchdogs over their own cultural sphere of influence and stand against cultural and ideological pluralism--America's dreaded (in their eyes) cultural export.

However, ten out of the 15 European Union states have chosen not to wage war against sects that are also new to them. Instead, they have set up a peaceful and constructive dialogue with their new religious movements. They have not experienced any increase in crimes or harmful activities carried out by "cults."

Their respectful tolerance towards religious diversity is a value that is worth being emulated elsewhere in Europe.

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