PARIS (Reuters) - The Church of Scientology’s French branch went on trial Monday on charges of organised fraud, in a case that could lead to the group being dissolved in France.
Registered as a religion in the United States, with celebrity members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology enjoys no such legal protection in France and has faced repeated accusations of being a money-making cult.
The French branch of the group said Monday religious freedom was threatened.
Its Paris headquarters and bookshop are defendants in the case. If found guilty, they could be fined 5 million euros (4.4 million pounds) and ordered to halt their activities.
Since the two units account for most of the group’s activities in France, that would in practice mean its dissolution -- although it is unclear whether it could still open new centres in the future.
Six leading French Scientology members are also in the dock. Some are charged with illegally practising as pharmacists and face up to 10 years in prison and hefty fines. A seventh defendant died before the case came to trial.
The case centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test.
In the following months, she paid more than 21,000 euros for books, “purification packs” of vitamins, sauna sessions and an “e-metre” to measure her spiritual progress, she said.
Other people also complained. Five original plaintiffs -- three of whom withdrew after reaching a financial settlement with the Church of Scientology -- said they spent up to hundreds of thousands of euros on similar tests and cures.
They told investigators that Scientology members harassed them with phone calls and nightly visits to cajole them into paying their bills or taking out bank loans. The plaintiffs were described as “vulnerable” by psychological experts in the case.
A spokesman for Scientology in France, Eric Roux, said freedom of religion was at stake.
“There are 45,000 Scientologists in France and Scientology has been present in our country for 50 years. We have no intention of allowing our fundamental rights to be trampled,” he told Reuters just before the start of the trial.
Scientology, founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, describes the “e-metre” as a religious artefact that helps the user and supervisor locate spiritual distress.
Investigators have described the machine as useless and vitamin cures handed out by church members as medication that should not have been freely sold.
Judge Jean-Christophe Hullin ruled last year that the offices and members, including the group’s 60-year-old French head Alain Rosenberg, should be tried. The public prosecutor had recommended the case be shelved.
In a trial that has revived a debate about religious freedom in secular France, the defence is expected to argue the court should not intervene in religious affairs.
Scientology has faced numerous setbacks in France, with members convicted of fraud in Lyon in 1997 and Marseille in 1999. In 2002, a court fined it for violating privacy laws and said it could be dissolved if involved in further similar cases.
Writing by Sophie Hardach; editing by Andrew Roche
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