The controversial Church of Scientology is planning to target students at Scottish universities and colleges in a new recruitment drive.
Leaders of the church, which is largely regarded as a cult and believes humans descended from aliens, have revealed they intend to send workers into campuses to seek out impressionable youngsters.
Ironically, they believe recent bad publicity after the movement featured on the BBC’s Panorama programme has helped attract new converts.
Following the programme screening two weeks ago, which featured presenter John Sweeney becoming enraged at a Scientologist, leaders say they have seen interest in their Scottish activities soar.
Until now, Scientology which counts a string of US celebrities as converts, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta has only had a small following in Scotland and a single base in Edinburgh But now it plans an assault on other parts of the country and has earmarked Glasgow as its next ‘parish’, with proposals already underway to recruit in the city’s universities.
Church leaders view students as a future source of income, as all Scientologists donate a large part of their salary to the ’cause’.
And the group also hopes to use the young converts to form a recruiting pyramid, encouraging friends and family to join a process which has already been blamed for family break-ups.
Now there are fears that more youngsters will be drawn into the cult, which was banned four years ago from running a drugs counselling group at Edinburgh University.
Last night, a source in touch with the Scientology movement said: ‘They are quite open about what they plan to do. Scotland has never really been a stronghold for them, but now, ironically, after the Panorama programme, they’ve had a flurry of interest.
‘It has led them to look at going into universities and colleges, much in the way the Moonies did, and target young people going through a stage in their lives when their minds are most vulnerable to suggestion.’ The church, which has its largest following in America, uses celebrity congregation members to promote itself, but has failed to achieve official religious status.
Even Victoria Beckham has now reportedly distanced herself and her footballer husband David from Scientology, despite their friendship in California with Tom Cruise.
The Scientologists’ bizarre belief that ‘evil alien souls’ have attached themselves to human bodies has led to worldwide scorn and derision of the ‘religion’, founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in the early 1950s.
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Its aims are also in doubt, as Hubbard was once famously quoted as saying: ‘Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.’ Last night, John Gourlay, who heads the church’s Edinburgh base, openly admitted the plans for expansion in Scotland and said the Panorama programme had led to a surge in the number of hits on its Scottish website.
He said: ‘Normally we get about five hits a week but, in the week after the programme, we had 150. More people are also calling into the building and buying books and DVDs and agree that the BBC was biased.
‘We are now looking to Glasgow. It would be great to expand there. At the moment, we do not have enough staff, but we will try by arranging meetings at weekends in Glasgow and hopefully build on that. The university campuses have always been a good place for us to recruit.’ Despite having only a few followers in Scotland, the Edinburgh base boasts Frank Laidlaw, the former Scottish rugby international and British Lion of the 1960s and 1970s, as one of its converts to Scientology.
He now acts as an ‘auditor’ at the Edinburgh Hubbard Academy of Personal Independence in South Bridge and plays a significant part in converting people to the cult, which does not recognise any one god in particular.
Laidlaw, from Melrose in Roxburghshire, did not respond to requests for an interview but, on his website, he states: ‘In my local Scientology Academy in Edinburgh, I have studied courses that have made me more positive in everything I do.
‘With the knowledge and drills within these courses, I can confront, communicate well and assist my family and friends to lead happier lives.’
Scottish singer and former Generation Game hostess Isla St Clair has also visited the Edinburgh centre and is performing on Thursday at a Scientology Scottish event at the cult’s headquarters the palatial Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International in Hollywood.
Former scientologist Roland Rashleigh-Berry, who was briefly linked with the cult’s Scottish operation, said yesterday: ‘The Church of Scientology is a vicious and dangerous cult that masquerades as a religion.
‘Its purpose is to make money. It practices a variety of mind- control techniques on people lured into its midst to gain control over their money and their lives.’
• Original title: Cruise ‘Cult’ to Target Students