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France: Can the country ban a church?

In criminal case, the Church of Scientology says it is being scapegoated in a wider campaign against freedom of religion.

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Indeed, some legal experts note that state prosecutors, by escalating far past a mere settling of grievances for two plaintiffs, and pushing for an outright ban of the church, appear to be attacking religious freedom in exactly the manner Scientologists claim.

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Critics of the church, however, argue that Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard, author of "Dianetics," uses the demarcation of "church" – with the rights implied – to hide unscrupulous behavior.

In Europe, Scientology is mainly known for its recent problems in Germany.

Berlin authorities in 2006 tried to ban the sect; the effort was quietly abandoned last fall. During that period, Germany squashed efforts to ban leading Scientologist Tom Cruise from filming, in Germany, the recent film "Valkyrie," in which the actor played Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of a failed assassination attempt on Hitler.

French 'black list' of sects

Six US lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee last month sent a letter to Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to Washington, expressing concern about a new "black list" of 173 sects in France, stemming from what is known as the MIVILUDES report, emerging out of the prime minister's office.

"Not only would … a new 'black list' represent a major step backward for religious freedom in France, it would contravene fundamental human rights," the letter stated.

French media opinion during the trial, which began May 28, has been generally unsympathetic to Scientology.

Christophe Barbier, deputy editor of l'Express, backed the "eradication of Scientology from French soil," saying it would be a "symbol for the world … by protecting the public from crooks and charlatans…."

Patrick Maisonneuve, lead attorney for the church, however, said a church ban would symbolize a narrow and intolerant side of France.

Scientology is recognized in Portugal, Sweden, Spain, and elsewhere, he said. Will French authorities "burn Ron Hubbard's books in the courtyard of the Sainte Chapelle while the international community stares in bewilderment?"

[Editor's note: Scientology bears no relationship to the Christian Science church, which publishes this newspaper.]