PARIS (AFP) — The Church of Scientology is to be tried for fraud, and seven of its members for illegally prescribing drugs, legal sources said Monday, in the latest clash between French officials and the controversial religion.
The charges stem from a case taken by a woman who said she paid the church more than 20,000 euros (28,000 dollars) for lessons, books, drugs and an "electrometer," a device which the church says can measure a person's mental state.
She allegedly made the payments after being approached by Scientologists in a Paris street in 1998.
The case to be examined at a still-unknown date by a Paris court is also being taken by another plaintiff and by France's professional pharmaceutical association.
Founded in the United States in 1954 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology, which has attracted Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise, was officially recognised as a religion there 20 years later.
But it is often accused in France and in other European countries, including Belgium, Germany and Greece, of exploiting its members financially.
Scientology followers are expected to contribute money to the church's coffers and follow its courses in order to climb through the ranks.
In particular Scientologists use a spiritual healing method called Dianetics, which is designed to help alleviate unwanted sensations and emotions, irrational fears and psychosomatic illnesses.
A French parliamentary commission has classified the church as a sect.
Critics of Scientology in France and abroad accuse it of unfairly pressuring and harassing opponents, including judges, lawyers, parliamentarians and journalists who have investigated its activities.
The organisation often goes to court to raise defamation charges whenever it feels itself under attack.
In the French court case announced Monday, Judge Jean-Christophe Hullin signed an order referring the church's main structure in France, the ASES-Celebrity Centre, and its bookshop for "organised fraud," the legal sources said.
The ASES and the bookshop could be closed if it is convicted, according to a source close to the case.
The seven church members, including Alain Rosenberg, the manager of the ASES-Celebrity Centre, are to be tried for the "illegal exercise of pharmacy," the legal source said.
Judge Hullin's decision to proceed with the case went against the Paris prosecutor's office which in September 2004 called for it to be dismissed because of insufficient evidence.
Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the "attitude of the prosecutor's office makes one wonder if political considerations were taken into account in the legal treatment of dossiers concerning Scientology."
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