It seems to be a boom time in Berlin for controversial new places of worship. First, it was residents in the east Berlin district of Pankow, currently up in arms about a new mosque which is being constructed by Ahmadiyya, a Muslim sect. Now west Berliners have their own institution to protest about -- a massive new Scientology center which is due to open on Saturday.
Indeed, the complaints from concerned residents have already begun flowing in. Parents are concerned their children will be influenced as they walk past on their way to school. And police have received one complaint claiming that members of the organization have been harrassing passersby with religious literature, Berlin's advisor on religious sects told the Der Tagesspiegel daily.
"The agents of Scientology are already working very hard to attract us and persuade us to be brainwashed," one local resident told the paper.
The six-story, 4,000 square meter (43,000 square feet) center is located in the upscale western Berlin district of Charlottenburg. The organization is expecting between 5,000 and 10,000 guests at the official opening Saturday.
Scientology spokesperson Frank Busch said the organization wanted to help Berlin "mainly in social areas such as the fight against drug abuse and violence among young people." He said there was an international program to open Scientology centers in capital cities around the world. A new building was opened in London just three months ago, and centers have opened in Madrid and Brussels in recent years. Scientology's Germany headquarters will remain in Munich despite the new center in Berlin.
The movement's expansion plans are viewed with alarm by some observers. "We fear that Scientologists from all over Europe will meet together in the new Berlin center," Ursula Caberta, who heads a working group that studies Scientology in the Hamburg senate, told Der Tagesspiegel.
The new centers are part of a campaign to "'scientologize' Europe once and for all," Caberta said. "They want to influence politics. We have to take that very seriously."
The Church of Scientology is a controversial organization in Germany, and is regarded as dangerous by the federal government. It is one of the organizations currently being monitored by Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's domestic intelligence agency, which also keeps an eye on neo-Nazis, left-wing extremists and Islamist terrorists.
"There is substantial evidence that the Scientology Organization is involved in activities directed against the free democratic order," the Office for the Protection of the Constitution warns in its most recent annual report.
But on the state level, Berlin tends to leave Scientology well enough alone -- though the opposition is hoping to pressure the government into monitoring the center's activities.
However Berlin's Interior Secretary Ehrhart Körting said Tuesday that the Berlin intelligence agency is not allowed to monitor the Church of Scientology, citing court decisions from 2001 and 2003. "Should there be new evidence that the group is engaging in unconstitutional activities, we will discuss with the federal government how we can proceed," he said. The federal-level agency of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution is watching the organization's activities in Berlin, he added.
Körting told the mass circulation daily Bild Tuesday that Scientology is a "dangerous organization because it operates in the gray area between religion, commerce and sects." However he also said Tuesday in comments to the radio station RBB-Inforadio that there was no reason to ban the organization, saying a better approach was to educate the public about the ideology behind the church.
The organization, which is on a worldwide expansion drive, is unlikely to be deterred by the German criticism. The Church of Scientology International announced last week that it had seen record growth in 2006. More than 1,500 new centers, missions and churches were opened around the world in the last year, spokesman Bob Adams said, including new groups in Afghanistan, Niger and Bahrain. The organization now operates 7,500 institutions in 163 countires.
The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 in the US by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. It has around 8 million members worldwide, including several celebrities such as actors John Travolta and Tom Cruise. The organization has an estimated 6,000 members in Germany, but experts believe the church has only 150-200 members in Berlin.