BERLIN, Germany (AP) — The U.S.-based Church of Scientology opened spacious new premises in Berlin on Saturday, reviving public debate about the group’s status in Germany, where it has come under surveillance and faced accusations of coercion.
Scientology’s German branch has rented a six-floor building on a busy street in the Charlottenburg district of west Berlin, raising its profile significantly.
Roughly one thousand guests, including Hollywood actress Anne Archer, attended the private dedication ceremony.
The Scientologists have fought German authorities in the courts to end surveillance by the domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The group has won court decisions putting an end to monitoring in Berlin; a court in the Saarland region in 2005 forbade the agency from using “intelligence methods” to track the group.
The Scientologists say the surveillance is an abuse of their right to freedom of religion.
The State Department regularly criticizes Germany in its annual Human Rights Report for continuing to monitor the Church of Scientology despite security officials’ acknowledgment that they have found no evidence of illegal activity.
The church said it will use the renovated, 43,000 square-foot in Berlin space for study, meetings and to carry out programs on human rights and against youth violence and drug abuse. The center is funded by member donations, Scientology officials say.
A glass and metal foyer featuring interactive videos on its activities and displaying books and DVDs on its founder, the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is already open to the public.
The opening has drawn renewed criticism of Scientology from German officials and church leaders, who say it is less a church than a business and uses coercive methods with members.
“Scientology is no church … Scientology is a commercial business enterprise and a sect,” said Kerstin Griese, a federal lawmaker for the governing Social Democrats. “Scientology must not be allowed to lobby near the parliament and the government.”
Frank Busch, a spokesman for the church, said the charges were “completely absurd.”
“We are in no way interested in politics,” Busch said. “We are a religious community.”
Archer, who marveled at the new building Friday, said opponents in Germany were ill-informed. “If people just knew what it is about, that would handle it,” she said. “It’s just ignorance.”
In his book “Dianetics,” Hubbard said the “Thetan,” or soul, suffers from negative “engrams” implanted in this life and innumerable past lives — the church avoids the word “reincarnation.” Scientology “auditors” help people work through problems using an “e-meter” device. They seek a state called “Clear” and then advance through various levels of “Operating Thetan.”