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U.S. report backs Scientologists in dispute with Germany

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Anti-church rhetoric escalates in Bonn

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. State Department Thursday backed claims by Scientologists of discrimination in Germany with a report that warns businesses or artists associated with the group may face government-approved discrimination and boycotts

The cautiously worded report, less directly critical of German government actions than some recent U.S. government statements, details complaints from the Church of Scientology that its members suffer both government-condoned and societal harassment. The discrimination included expulsion from the government's political party and loss of employment in Germany.

The report said the government "fully respects the human rights of its citizens." But it also said, "Business firms whose owners or executives are Scientologists may face boycotts and discrimination, sometimes with government approval."

Individual German states also took action against the church, the survey said. Bavaria is screening applicants for the civil service to weed out Scientologists and has decreed that private companies awarded contracts in "sensitive" fields must vouch they do not follow the church's tenets.

But the State Department's annual worldwide human rights report said "the past year has also seen some positive developments" in the continuing confrontation between the German government and the U.S.-based church, which claims 30,000 members in Germany.

Threat to democracy

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The German government contends the church is a moneymaking organization with some traits of organized crime, and as such represents a threat to democracy. In newspaper advertisements and other media, Scientologists have denounced government moves to keep them from public jobs as reminiscent of the persecution of Jews in Germany's Nazi era.

In Bonn, the dispute escalated as the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) blasted the church for comparing the party to the Nazis.

Bernd Protzner, general secretary of the conservative sister party of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats, called the Scientology statement "the most despicable sort of offensive propaganda."

He said in a statement the church had insulted millions of CSU voters and its accusations marked a new low in a "smear campaign" against Germany.

The Church of Scientology Wednesday accused the CSU of "teutonic arrogance and insensitivity" toward criticism in the United States that church members were discriminated against in Germany.

Hollywood connection

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Some of the scientologists most vocal supporters can be found in Hollywood. Tom Cruise, star of Mission Impossible, is a member of the church, and when the film opened last August, a youth faction of the Christian Democrats organized a boycott.

The Scientologists espouse a dianetics philosophy that emphasizes self-improvement and communication skills. It has appealed to the likes of John Travolta, a follower of 20 years.

Jazz musician Chick Corea and composer Isaac Hayes are also members of the church, and they have encountered difficulties performing in Germany that they attribute to their membership.

Hollywood's role in the clash between Scientologists and Germany was spotlighted recently with the publication of a letter, signed by Cruise, Travolta and other Hollywood heavyweights. The letter compared treatment of Scientologists in Germany to abuse suffered by Jews in Germany during Hitler's regime.

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"We compared it to the very early years," said Bert Fields, attorney for the Scientologists. "We didn't compare it to the holocaust. Only an idiot would compare it to the death camps and the Hitler regime.

Cruise's latest film, "Jerry Maguire," opens in Germany in late February and Travolta's "Michael" goes there in March.

So far, there is no talk of boycotting either. But it may not matter. The attempted boycott in Germany of "Mission Impossible" didn't prevent the film from being that country's 8th highest grossing movie of the year.

Correspondent Ron Tank and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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