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Jewish Leader Disputes Scientology’s Comparison

May 16, 1997 GMT

MAINZ, Germany (AP) _ The exchange was heated and quick, touched off by a denial that the Church of Scientology had compared the treatment of its members in Germany with the persecution of Jews by Hitler.

``Don’t you read your own newspapers?″ the leader of Germany’s Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis, said angrily, looking in disbelief at Scientologist Barbara Lieser. Scientology has published both booklets and newspaper ads alluding to what they see as parallels.

Such public confrontation has been rare in the German debate on Scientology, easily the most controversial religious group in Germany, where officials claim it is an intrinsic threat to society.

In years of debate over Scientology’s place in Germany, exchanges have been made mostly with the media as intermediary. The Mainz forum was the first public gathering to bring together most sides in the complex debate.

Lieser’s response to Bubis’ challenge drew dissatisfied groans from the audience of 1,000, mostly students, at the University of Mainz on Wednesday.

``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,″ she said.

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

Bubis fumed.

``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?″ Bubis asked.

Besides Bubis and Lieser, a member of Scientology’s branch in Frankfurt, the two-hour discussion included a sect expert from the 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, a forum organizer, 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 enforcment officials want to put the group under surveillance.

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.