Monday, September 20, 1999 Published at 18:29 GMT 19:29 UK
Scientology trial opens in France
The two men who are suing the church, with their lawyer (right)
Seven members of the Church of Scientology have gone on trial in France on charges of fraud.
The charges against the seven defendants - who are alleged to have obtained large sums of money from fellow sect-members by fraudulent means - date back to the late 1980s.
Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou - who has said France might consider banning the sect - said the loss of the files was simply a mistake. The church says they have been deliberately destroyed.
But it is the third time in a year that evidence against Scientologists in France has disappeared.
The court rejected a defence bid to have the case postponed because the loss of the files would "make a fair trial impossible".
'A Roman circus'
The church itself - which claims some 40,000 adherents in France - has accused the French government of "trying to turn the justice system into a Roman circus.
The group - which figures on a government list of 173 to be tracked and deterred from practising cult activities - says its members are subjected to slander and persecution.
Popular with Hollywood stars
Scientology - founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard - teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve human problems.
The sect has many high-profile Hollywood adherents, including John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
In the United States, the Church of Scientology is regarded as a religion.
However, a global report on religious freedom by the State Department said the group continued to report discrimination and harassment in some European countries, including Germany where it is viewed as a criminal organisation.