Expatica news

Scientology: from sect to religion

21 January 2008

MADRID – Long derided as a cult or a sect, Scientology has finally come to be recognised as a religion in Spain thanks to a High Court ruling that has forced the Justice Ministry to equate it with Catholicism, Islam and any other major faith in the state registry of religions.

The decision, announced by the Justice Ministry on 19 December, marks a hard-fought victory for Spain’s 10,000 Scientologists, who have spent decades battling official scepticism and even scorn of their beliefs. It also sets Spain apart from most European countries, where Scientology continues to exist in a legal limbo. Belgium, France, Ireland, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom do not consider Scientology to be a religion. Portugal recognised it last September, while Germany classes it as a business, and has even gone so far as to consider banning it.

Spain’s High Court took a different view, basing its verdict on previous Constitutional and Supreme Court rulings that had forced the government to recognise other minority faiths such as the Unification Church, founded by Korean preacher Sun Myung Moon. It argued that to continue to refuse to recognise Scientology as a religion would undermine the "neutrality and impartiality of the state toward religious beliefs."

Founded by American science fiction author L Ron Hubbard in the 1950s, Scientology is described by believers as encompassing "all aspects of life from the point of view of the spirit." It preaches that "man is a spiritual being whose existence spans more than one life and who is endowed with abilities well beyond those which he normally considers he possesses." It is perhaps best known thanks to its high-profile followers, many of them Hollywood stars. John Travolta subscribes to the religion’s beliefs, as does Tom Cruise, one of its most fervent followers. Just last week, in fact, a video of Cruise espousing the benefits of Scientology was released on the internet.

The principal criticism Scientology has faced is not its belief system itself, but rather the way that it is run as what is essentially an international commercial organisation. This has lead to accusations that it financially exploits its members.

In Spain, official scrutiny of its activities began in 1984 when police arrested 88 leaders and believers, some of them foreign nationals.

"The accusations – being a sect, fraud and secrecy – were like something out of a book," complains Iván Arjona, the 27-year-old head of the Scientology Church in Spain.

In the end, prosecutors put 17 people on trial and called 150 witnesses to hearings that lasted seven months. The sentence was made public in December 2001. All the accused were acquitted.

However, the legal battle did not end there. The government, having failed to make criminal charges stick against Scientology, turned to civil and administrative actions, even as Scientologists pressed for recognition. All the time, the Church, which claims 10 million members in 164 countries around the world, continued to expand in Spain.

Today it has three branches in Valencia, two in Barcelona and one each in Seville, Alicante and Bilbao. Its Spanish headquarters in Madrid are located in a luxurious five-storey building – a former Catholic convent – close to Congress. Last month Arjona opened a temple in Vitoria, the capital of the Basque Country, where he was invited to visit the Basque Parliament. Similar offers from town halls and regional authorities have followed since Scientology became an officially recognised religion.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / Juan González Bedoya 2008]

Subject: Spanish news