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Tuesday, June 23, 1998 Published at 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK

World: Europe

German charged with spying on Scientologists

The Church of Scientology enjoys the support of Hollywood actor Tom Cruise

By BBC Religious Affairs Reporter Jane Little

A German security agent, who was arrested in Switzerland earlier this year on suspicion of spying on the Church of Scientology, has been formally charged with espionage.

The official, who has been identified as Peter Goebel, was arrested in April in Basle.

He has been charged with carrying out illegal business for a foreign state, working for a political information service and falsifying identity documents.

Germany has been engaged in a fierce intelligence battle with the US-based Church of Scientology which it regards as a money-making organisation and a threat to democracy.

The charge brought against the security agent is an embarassing setback for the German government in its quest against Scientology.

Peter Goebel - who went by the name of Peter Goeller - was arrested as he was leaving a restaurant in Basle where he was allegedly collecting information on the church.

He is now back in Germany and is likely to be tried in absentia later this year.

Germany has apologised to Switzerland but it remains defiant in its strident opposition to Scientology.

[ image: Film star John Travolta: a believer in the teachings of L Ron Hubbard]
Film star John Travolta: a believer in the teachings of L Ron Hubbard
Last week the results of a two-year parliamentary investigation concluded that it was not a religion but an anti-democratic political organisation, which merited continued surveillance.

Germany is under pressure to justify that surveillance from the United Nations and has faced repeated criticism from the United States which accorded the church tax-free status as a religion five years ago.

The controversial church claims 10,000 members in Germany and 8m worldwide.

Based on the self-help teachings of the late science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, it enjoys the support of leading Hollywood celebrities including Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

But its many critics charge that it is a cynical business enterprise which Germany alleges has its own counter-espionage network.

The Los Angeles-based church caused a storm last year when it compared its treatment in Germany today with that of Jews under Hitler fifty years ago.

Germany has shown itself unimpressed with such rhetoric or with diplomatic threats from the US.

This latest political skirmish may prompt a security services re-think but it is unlikely to end the running battle with the church.

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