St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

German visitor takes on Scientology

Church leaders say the German official is a "fascist demagogue'' who has stoked a hate campaign. She says they exaggerate.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


CLEARWATER -- The battle between the Church of Scientology and the German government, a long-running dispute steeped in emotion and international politics, has come crashing into Clearwater with a visit by a controversial German official.

Ursula Caberta, who heads a government office in Hamburg that works to curb Scientology in Germany, said Tuesday at a downtown news conference that Scientology is viewed in her country as "a new kind of political extremism." She also alleged that church officials have exaggerated hardships of Scientologists caused by her office and used fraud in an orchestrated effort to persuade U.S. lawmakers to impose sanctions against Germany.

"I believe that the very good relations between Germany and the U.S. should not be influenced by an organization like Scientology," Caberta said, appearing at the headquarters of the Lisa McPherson Trust, a "watchdog group" founded by Scientology critic Bob Minton.

Officials in the church's worldwide spiritual headquarters here were quick to respond, inviting reporters to speak with about 20 German Scientologists who say they have moved to Clearwater because of discrimination in their homeland. Many said Caberta has stoked a hate campaign in Germany that has ruined the lives and fortunes of scores of Scientologists, denying them access to jobs, credit, schools and civic groups.

"It is all I can do to hold my temper," said Hans Bschorr, a Scientologist who said he was employed as a television reporter covering the Bavarian parliament when a newspaper article four years ago mentioned he belonged to the church.

"I lost everything over there instantly," said Bschorr, scoffing at the notion Scientologists have exaggerated their plight for political gain in the United States. "I had to move my family out of the country."

He now lives with his family in Clearwater.

On Sunday, when Caberta arrived at Tampa International Airport, about a dozen Scientologists greeted her with shouts of "Nazi, go home!" and other insults. That was followed by many tense moments that have kept Clearwater police on their toes, including a dual picket Sunday in which Scientologists and members of Minton's group warily shared the same sidewalk.

Stacy Brooks, a leader of Minton's group and a former Scientologist, said the display at the airport was "an embarrassing moment for me as an American." She said Caberta was an "incredibly compassionate" person.

But Scientologists disagree. "It was an appropriate welcome," said Marty Rathbun, a top church official, who called Caberta a "fascist demagogue."

At the news conference, Caberta focused on the case of Antje Victore, a German Scientologist who in 1997 was granted political asylum in the United States by a Tampa immigration judge after claiming she was subjected to religious persecution in her homeland.

It was believed to be the first time the United States had granted asylum to a Scientologist.

Caberta pointed to letters Victore used to make her case. They were written by business owners who said Victore wouldn't be hired in Germany because of her involvement in Scientology. However, Victore failed to disclose to the judge that the letters were written by fellow Scientologists, Caberta said. She also said they were written in English, not German, which suggested an orchestrated effort by Scientology to use Victore's case for political gain and a "spectacular" abuse of the U.S. system.

In a bill pending before Congress, the case is listed as one reason the United States should pressure Germany to stop "government discrimination . . . based on religion or belief."

Victore now lives in Clearwater.

Though Scientology did not orchestrate the case, Rathbun said, there would have been nothing improper if it had.

He and Bill Walsh, the church's human rights lawyer, criticized a form developed by Caberta's office that is used by companies and many local governments in Germany to weed out Scientologist job candidates.

The church refers to the form as a "sect filter." Walsh said it is coming into increasingly wider use by German companies, including subsidiaries of U.S. corporations, promoting "importation of this kind of tyranny," Walsh said.

Caberta said Tuesday that the form was developed after German business people complained that Scientologists were trying to incorporate the principles of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard into corporations.

The form prevents that practice and is not a blanket ban against hiring Scientologists, she said: "This is falsely being converted into a question of religion."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.