Cults and Psycho Groups

Sometimes it has to happen to a celebrity before the world pays attention. In 1993 acclaimed American Jazz pianist Chick Corea was disinvited from a concert in Stuttgart, Germany. The government of the German state of BadenWurttemberg canceled the concert because Mr. Corea is a Scientologist.

For many, this was the first indication that all was not well with religious minorities in Germany. Then a year later Germany's major political party attempted to generate a boycott of the movie Phenomenon because it starred well-known Scientologist John Travolta. Shortly afterward, a similar attempt was made against Mission: Impossible because its star was Scientologist Tom Cruise.

This discrimination against American celebrities evoked strong protest in international artistic and political communities. The response was heightened by a controversial series of fullpage ads that the Church of Scientology ran in leading U.S. newspapers, which compared the current treatment of Scientologists in Germany with the treatment of Jews by the National Socialists in the 1930s. Indeed, the reaction was such that Chick Corea has performed in Germany a number of times since his canceled concert (but not without controversy), and both Tom Cruise's and John Travolta's films have achieved some success in Germany as well. However, celebrity discrimination appears to be only the tip of an iceberg of harassment and unequal treatment, both official and otherwise, directed at Scientologists in Germany today.

A Pattern of Harassment

Since about 1990 Church of Scientology members have been discriminated against and harassed in Germany both by public and private agencies. The discrimination began at the state and local level, where Scientologists were banned from regional political parties, from civil service positions, and (for Scientologist business) from obtaining government contracts. The government also sponsored antiScientology literature for distribution to schoolchildren. More informal types of animus against Scientologists include denial of bank accounts and loans, as well as refusal to admit their children to private schools. The church has cataloged a list of almost 100 instances of threats of violence and of actual violence against Scientologists and vandalism on their property since 1990.

More recently the German federal government has targeted Scientology. To become a member of Germany's ruling political party, the Christian Democratic Union, a candidate must sign the following statement: "I apply for enrollment in the CDU and state that I am not a member of another party and I am not a member of the Scientology sect." (Translated from the German.) The other major political parties in Germany have followed the CDU in either banning or expelling Scientologists from party membership. The Church of Scientology reports that in 1996 the CDU demanded that the federal minister of the interior ban all Scientologists from public service jobs, and later that year Germany's federal and regional governments agreed to exclude them, as far as possible, from public contracts.

In a statement released by its U.S. embassy, the German government defends its actions by asserting that Scientology uses "inhuman and totalitarian practices," including, it asserted, the use of "pseudoscientific courses" that causes "serious harm to some individuals," affecting both their "mental and physical health." This makes persons "psychologically and financially dependent" on the church, which then allows it to "exercise undue influence in certain economic sectors." The German government alleges that it's not alone in refusing to recognize Scientology as a religion, but that other countries, including France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain, also do not accept Scientology as a bona fide religion.

In October of 1996 the German government considered the request of the CDU to place the church under surveillance by the Offices for the Protection of the Constitution (OPC), an antiextremist government security agency. At about that same time the United States was finalizing its Human Rights Country Reports, which included a section on Germany. The German government's treatment of the Scientologists had become a sore point in German/American relations, and the U.S. State Department was looking closely at the issue.

At that time the German government released a report that concluded that "no concrete facts exist currently to substantiate the suspicion of criminal acts" by the Church of Scientology and rejected the CDU's call for surveillance of the Church by the OPC. But just a few months after the United States published its human rights report, which noted favorably the German government's decision to not place the Church of Scientology under surveillance--all 16 German federal states and the federal government decided in June of 1997 to conduct the surveillance anyway, claiming that it will focus on the "structure" of the church and "not on individual members." Germany's federal minister of the interior has said that the "year's surveillance will establish whether the organization is simply an unpleasant group, a criminal organization, or an association with anticonstitutional aims."

Though the government will not comment on what the surveillance entails, it typically involves wiretapping and mail interception of communications, as well as observation and possibly infiltration. Whatever the long-term consequences, Germany's maneuvering on the issue has paid off: the U.S. State Department has recently backed away from the issue and, in an apparent attempt to foster more positive relations with the German government, has openly criticized the Church of Scientology for comparing current German government policies and those of the Nazis.

The Enquete Commission

Much of the discomfort felt by Scientologists seems to originate with the Enquete Commission (Commission of Inquiry), recently established by the Bundestag (the lower house of the German federal parliament) to investigate "cults and psycho groups." The committee is comprised of 11 voting members of the Bundestag along with 11 selected experts; its purpose is to investigate groups that pose potential danger to the German people and to advise the Bundestag on the necessary political decisions that can be made to avert the danger.

The Enquete Commission began its work with almost 600 different groups on its investigatory list; its final report is not yet out. But the process of the investigation has left religious minorities feeling vulnerable, especially because of the requirement that they justify their beliefs before the commission, which is conspicuously heavy with "experts." The commission has members with ties to large Christian denominations that compete with small religions in the marketplace of faith, and so many of its members are openly antagonistic to minority faiths like Scientology. Also, the very request to testify before the commission insinuates that the religious group is suspected of being a dangerous cult. In addition, there is the question of why certain religions have been singled out to be brought up before the commission, while other larger denominations have not been required to testify and actually have representatives on the commission.

Gabriele Yonan, from the University of Berlin, has been active in supporting the rights of minority religions in Germany. She blames the recent focus on Scientology, which she likens to the 1950 McCarthy hearings in America, to two troubling trends: the present economic malaise and the reduction in membership of the official churches.

Germany's unemployment has been hovering at almost twice the U.S. rate. In some areas of the former East Germany it is more than 16 percent. It is not coincidental, Yonan believes, that one of those most vehement in his efforts to "expose the dangers" posed by small religious groups is the German federal minister for labor, Norbert Bl
Article Author: Nicholas P. Miller

Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., is an attorney and associate professor of church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. He is the author of the The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), which more fully develops the theme of this article.