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John Travolta and Tom Cruise may be just pop-culture icons to you and me, but in Germany their faith in the preachings of science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard is politically taboo; Scientology is deemed not a religion but a suspect movement whose activities verge on the dangerous edges of extremism. Now Germany's stern attitudes are raising something of an international ruckus, fueled in equal parts by the assertive Church of Scientology, Hollywood luminaries and a U.S. government caught with conflicting objectives.

Until last month, only the Scientologists and human-rights observers were paying much attention to what was going on in Germany. Then a startling letter appeared in the International Herald Tribune, signed by 34 show-biz celebrities and studio executives, comparing the purported discrimination suffered by Scientologists in Germany today to the "unspeakable horrors" perpetrated against the Jews in the 1930s. That comparison provoked outrage in the American Jewish community. Last week the State Department stepped in to address the charges in its influential yearly Human Rights Report. Spokesman Nicholas Burns went even further than the report, flatly accusing Germany of "discrimination" against Scientologists and of punishing them solely for their beliefs.

With that, Germany had had enough. In Bonn, the government declared that it was its "duty to publicize Scientology's practices and protect citizens from them." There were prolonged meetings at the chancellery, with much dark talk of slashing back at the U.S., reportedly by urging it to abolish capital punishment and do more to combat racism.

So why is all this erupting into an international dispute, albeit a well-contained one? The answer lies in the very different standards of religious freedom, the opposing views of the controversial Church of Scientology and Germany's intense sensitivity to its painful modern history.

The German campaign against the Scientologists as detailed in the State Department's report is a dry dish of bureaucratic caution, simply laying out the facts and calling no names. It says Scientologists have been barred from joining major German parties like the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats and that some who joined earlier are being purged. The state of Baden-Wurttemberg has ordered its equivalent of the FBI to put a watch on church members. Bavaria is screening them out of the state civil service and says it will deny funds to events that feature performers who are Scientologists. Cruise and jazz pianist Chick Corea, also a member of the U.S. church, have been the targets of a demonstration and a boycott, apparently with official approval.

Scientologists and their supporters say this is as bad as the Nazi regime. Church members, they claim, cannot obtain employment by the government, and their children have been kicked out of schools. Such "religious intolerance," said the Hollywood letter, is akin to Nazi policy that "first marginalized, then excluded, then vilified and ultimately subjected [the Jews] to unspeakable horrors." Those provocative charges put the U.S. in an awkward position: Scientology is a legally recognized church in the U.S., and its members are entitled to practice their faith freely. Burns, required to stand up for the principle of religious freedom but not to offend a major ally, denounced the ad's over-the-top parallels as "outrageous."

In fact, everyone involved in the dispute is having trouble presenting a coherent case. The German government also guarantees freedom of religion but refuses to register Scientology as a religion, considering it a profit-making enterprise that is bilking its members of their savings. German officials explain that it is precisely because of the Nazi past that they are hard not only on Scientology but on all "radical cults and sects, including right-wing Nazi groups." People have gone to jail in Germany for displaying a swastika or denying the Holocaust. And most Germans, 70% of whom tell pollsters they think the church should be banned, consider Scientology a subversive organization. "The federal government," says Peter Hausmann, its spokesman in Bonn, "will continue to combat Scientology with all legal means." Kohl snapped that those who signed the letter "don't know a thing about Germany and don't want to know."

Burns told Scientology officials, "We share the outrage of many Germans to see their government compared to the Nazis." But that did not keep him from drawing sharp distinctions regarding German notions of religious freedom. "We believe," he said, "that the members of the Church of Scientology have a right to practice their religion in Germany. Some Americans have had their religious rights infringed." Other U.S. officials use harsher terms. They believe Germany is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of its own constitutional guarantees. And, says an Administration official, the Germans are conducting their "witch hunt in the absence of demonstrated illegal action by the Scientologists."

The Germans have no hard evidence of criminality but an abiding fear of extremism in any form. The Christian Democrats call Scientology "totalitarian." A Social Democratic member of the Bundestag says it is "fascist." When a German delegation met with U.S. officials on the issue late last year, the Americans argued that if there is evidence of illegality, the Scientologists should be prosecuted under existing laws. The Germans replied that, well, there wasn't enough evidence for a trial, but even so, their government "has a responsibility to protect its citizens." Washington agrees that the lid should be kept on dangerous movements but thinks Bonn is tightening such restraints far beyond worrisome Nazi-like groups. "This is all extralegal in our view," says an American diplomat.

Some German officials argue that the whole fuss was cranked up by the Scientologists "to achieve what we won't give them: tax-exempt status as a religion. This is intimidation, pure and simple." Scientologists campaigned in the U.S. for years before receiving tax exemption in 1993, and Washington has not asked Bonn to grant it.

Both countries emphasize that the dispute will have no serious effect on their close alliance. The German embassy in Washington says the relationship is obviously in good shape if this is the biggest problem it has to deal with. Last week's State Department report also points to "some positive developments": Bonn has decided not to put Scientology under federal surveillance and concluded there is no evidence that the church has committed criminal acts. In spite of the public argument, both capitals think they can quietly agree to disagree on the issue--if the Scientologists will let them.