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Jewish leader disputes Scientology’s comparison

May 16, 1997 GMT

MAINZ, Germany (AP) _ It was a rare public meeting on Scientology, and the Church of Scientology representative was on the defensive.

It wasn’t true, she said, that her church was comparing treatment of its German members with Hitler’s persecution of Jews.

``Don’t you read your own newspapers?″ the leader of Germany’s Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis, asked angrily, looking in disbelief at Scientologist Barbara Lieser.

Scientology is easily the most controversial religious group in Germany, accused by the German government of being an intrinsic threat to society. The debate over Scientology has surfaced in newspapers and on television, but the Mainz forum was the first public gathering to bring together a variety of viewpoints.

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Germany’s Jewish community was drawn into the dispute after church ads claimed members face discrimination like Jews in the Third Reich.

``Mr. Bubis, I have never said that the genocide of your people is comparable with the discrimination of Scientologists today. But this discrimination exists. It is not comparable,″ Lieser said.

``They are at most comparable at the first beginning,″ she added, in an apparent reference to the years between Hitler’s rise to power and the start of the Holocaust.

Lieser’s comment drew groans Wednesday from an audience of 1,000 at the University of Mainz.

Bubis fumed, recalling Scientology’s claims of persecution in major publications.

``How can you claim in one breath to be hurt like the people of the 1930s? Where were your books burned? Where were your members put in concentration camps? Where?″ he asked.

Besides Bubis and Lieser, who is a member of Scientology’s branch in Frankfurt, the two-hour discussion included a sect expert from the Roman Catholic church and law professors from the United States and Germany.

Notably absent was any representative of the German government, which has openly criticized the group and sought to curtail its influence.

Heiner Baab, one of the forum organizers, said the interior minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, the state’s top security official, declined an invitation.

``His assistant said he refused to sit at the same table with Scientologists,″ Baab said.

At the center of the conflict is the official contention that Scientology’s mission is to infiltrate government. As a result, major political parties ban Scientologists from membership and Germany’s chief law enforcement officials want to put the group under surveillance.

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Scientologists claim their members can’t obtain bank loans, face job discrimination and that their children have been banned from private schools.

The United States was drawn into the debate last summer after prominent American Scientologists, including actor Tom Cruise, faced boycott calls. The State Department has been critical of German actions against individual members of the church.

The university forum broke little new ground, covering the disparity between the U.S. and German positions as well as criticism of the group as secretive, coercive and profit-oriented.

But for many present, it was the first time they heard first-hand a Scientologist discuss the group’s religious tenets. The audience listened attentively as Lieser explained Scientology’s belief that the individual is the spiritual being, and that higher states are achieved through self-knowledge.

``It was interesting to hear, but I don’t think it’s really a religion,″ said Almut, 23-year-old law student, who declined to give her last name.