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Scientologists charged with fraud in France: source

PARIS (Reuters) - A French judge has ordered two departments and seven prominent members of the Church of Scientology in France to stand trial on charges of organized fraud, a judicial source said on Monday.

The case is the latest in a series of legal battles that have pitted the French judicial system against the Scientologists, who could be forced to stop their activities in France if found guilty.

The latest suit centers on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into the Church of Scientology by a group of people she met outside a metro station.

In the following months, she said she paid 140,000 francs (21,340 euros) for “purification packs” and books which she said were a fraud. Other complaints then surfaced, prolonging the investigation.

Judge Jean-Christophe Hullin ruled that the Scientologists’ Celebrity Center, bookstore and seven Church leaders should be tried for fraud and “illegally practicing as pharmacists”.

The Church of Scientology is registered as a religion in the United States but has struggled to be accepted in Europe, with French authorities seeing it as a sect masquerading as a church to make money.

The Church of Scientology denounced Monday’s ruling, saying it was being “stigmatized” by the courts.

“The special treatment reserved for the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center raises questions about the equality of the justice system and the presumption of innocence,” it said in a statement.

The public prosecutor had said the case should be shelved. In a relatively rare move, Judge Hullin ignored the recommendation and ordered a trial, which is not expected to start for at least six months.

The Scientologists said the suit was “empty and concocted”, adding that the original plaintiff had been reimbursed.

The Church of Scientology, which counts actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its members, was founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

It 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 similar cases.

Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Elizabeth Piper