“Are you married? What religion do you follow?”
The spokeswoman from the Scientology Centre was endeavouring to steer the conversation to more personal topics. “Scientology is my religion,” she said, proudly.
I had been invited to go on an “educational tour” around the controversial new “Church of Scientology” in Berlin.
The offices are situated over six floors in a large building on Otto Suhr Allee, one of Berlin’s most exclusive addresses.
There are nine Scientology “churches” in Germany, but this new centre in Berlin is by far the largest in the country.
“The aim of our Church is to help with social programmes, as well as the rehabilitation of criminals, drug addiction, drug prevention and human rights,” said Ute Kiessl, a spokeswoman from the Church of Scientology.
“The aims of Scientology include a civilisation without war, without criminality and without insanity, where honest people have rights.”
We were asked to watch a number of videos showing what Scientologists claim are prisoner rehabilitation projects and programmes which they maintain can help people get off drugs.
Film icon Tom Cruise, one of the most famous Scientologists, appeared in several videos.
One film contained graphic pictures purporting to depict mentally ill patients in a hospital, part of an aggressive campaign waged by Scientologists against Russian psychiatrists.
The new centre is open to members of the public, and Scientologists are keen to encourage people to drop in.
There are lecture halls, a bookshop, a chapel, “auditing rooms”, and like other Scientology centres, there is an office dedicated to the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard.
The room is sealed off, and as I stood outside looking into an empty office which had a desk, a chair and bookshelves full of weighty tomes about Scientology, my guide asked in a reverent tone, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
I was then invited to test the “E-meter“, an electronic device that in the hands of a trained Scientology “auditor” can allegedly detect a person’s mood swings, or apparently help recall previous traumatic incidents.
The fact that the new Scientology Centre is now in the German capital has prompted a heated debate in the media.
Critics accuse the organisation of cult-type practices and exploiting followers for financial gain and they argue that the centre may become a meeting point for Scientologists across Europe.
But Scientologists reject this and they claim that they want to help people, and carry on their “community work”.
Some local residents are concerned about the new Scientology Centre.
At the Tribuene Theatre, a few doors down from the “Church of Scientology,” there is a sign at the main entrance warning Scientologists to stay away. “Some people came into our theatre, three or four times,” said Corinna Trempnau, the theatre director.
“They kept inviting me to go to the centre to discuss Scientology. I didn’t want to go there and I tried to throw them out, but they didn’t go away.
“I think they’re dangerous. Scientologists are against democracy, and they are against everyone who is not a member,” she said.
Scientology is not recognised as a religion by the German government. It is considered a commercial enterprise, despite repeated protests by Scientologists.
For years, the organisation has been monitored by federal intelligence services because they maintain there is evidence that it is “involved in activities directed against the free democratic order” and the country’s constitution.
According to a recent report published by the Bundesverfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution):
“It is typical for the SO to defame all those who criticise and oppose their ideology, calling such people criminals or insane. Such propaganda is another actual indicator for the organisation’s attacks on human dignity.”
There are many outspoken critics of Scientology in Germany, like Pastor Thomas Gandow, Sect Commissioner of the Lutheran Church in Berlin and Brandenburg.
“Scientology is a totalitarian commercial cult. It’s dangerous because Scientologists are against freedom of religion and freedom of opinion,” he says.
Thomas Gandow says the new location of the Centre is significant. “It is a worrying development. Scientologists want to have a base here in Berlin because they want to make inroads into German politics,” he said.
Others believe Scientologists have little chance of recruiting more members in Germany because of the country’s Nazi past.
Dr Michael Utsch is a member of the Protestant Church’s “sect-monitoring” institution in Berlin. “I don’t think Scientologists will acquire new converts,” Dr Utsch said.
“We have a bad history in this country and Germans are sceptical about ideological movements.”
Plea for calm
But some academics have cautioned against overreaction.
Professor Andreas Gruenschloss, a specialist in new religious movements at Goettingen University, said: “After several decades of heated debates about Scientology, we should all calm down now and take a more sober look.
“The movement is relatively small in Germany, as well as on a worldwide scale. Many people are casual members, who don’t fit the stereotypical view of the brainwashed sect personality.
“On the organisational front, Scientology and its so-called ‘ethics’ are clearly problematic. It creates potential for conflict because it presupposes a very black and white image of the world, comprising those who are friends and those who are enemies.
“This has led to the perception that Scientology uses totalitarian ways of handling problems and even people. But I assume that the monitoring of Scientology by the intelligence services in Germany will nevertheless stop… in the near future,” said Prof Gruenschloss.
Thousands of guests were invited to attend the opening ceremony at the Scientology Centre in Berlin on 13 January. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit turned down his invitation.
But about 1,000 guests, including Hollywood actress Anne Archer, did attend the ceremony – held behind closed doors.