After an investigation spanning fifteen years, Belgian federal prosecutors have decided to prosecute the Church of Scientology and its leaders as a criminal organization, according to Belgian media reports.
According to RT News, charges of fraud, illegal medicine, breaches of privacy and extortion have been drawn up against the Church and two senior executives, De Tijd, Belgium’s financial newspaper, reported.
“The subpoenas have only just been sent to the scientologists,” the newspaper reported yesterday, The Province writes.
Belgium's Flanders News reports the charges against the Church of Scientology are said to stem from an investigation triggered by the Belgium Labor Mediation Service.
In 2008, labor mediators complained employment contracts issued by the Church of Scientology in an effort to recruit new members which allegedly breached the country's strict employment laws.
The matter ended up on the desk of examining magistrate Michel Claise, who then ordered raids on Scientology premises where police allegedly “managed to seize a wealth of evidence,” that the organization had spied on and extorted money from its members, the Flanders News reported.
As a result of the investigation, Belgian prosecutor Jean-Claude Van Espen said that the Belgian Church of Scientology, plus Scientology's Office of Human Rights and their 12 members should be charged with extortion fraud, organized crime and unlawful practices in medicine.
At the time, the Church of Scientology, which has the actor Tom Cruise as its figurehead, said it would fight the charges and described the case as a "witch hunt."
Fastest-growing religion in the world
Scientology — which means "the study of truth" — calls itself the "fastest-growing religion in the world." Born in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who famously said "If you want to make a lot of money, create a religion,” the group now claims millions of members in 165 different countries and eighty-five hundred Scientology churches, missions and outreach groups across the globe, according to the New York Times.
Although an estimated 500 people belong to the church of Scientology in Belgium, Scientology is not recognized as a faith as it is in the U.S., Sweden and Spain. Belgium's government denied Scientology the status of religion in 1997.
Neither is it recognized as a faith in Germany. A 1997 state-level interior ministry report described the organization's agenda and activities as "marked by objectives that are fundamentally and permanently directed at abolishing the free democratic basic order," Time reported in 2007.
Scientology is not considered a religion under French law. In 2009, the organization was convicted of fraud for "[pressuring] members into paying large sums for questionable remedies," according to the Associated Press.
The case began with a legal complaint by a young woman who said she took out loans and spent the equivalent of $28,000 on books, courses and "purification packages" after being recruited in 1998, the AP reported at the time. When she sought reimbursement and to leave the group, its leadership refused to allow either.
The conviction for the case was upheld in a French appeals court in February 2012.
Belgium case may set international precedent
Belgian authorities began legally battling Scientologists in 2007, when the country tried to label the movement as a cult; a move that even received blowback from the U.S. State Department.
But as The Atlantic noted, since the Belgian government won't charge Scientology for being a cult — authorities are focusing on prosecuting it as a criminal organization.
The daily De Tijd says that the decision to fight the case may serve as an international precedent on which to base other cases, making them much easier to prosecute worldwide.
Since word of the impending charges surfaced early Friday, a spokesman for the Church’s Brussels headquarters told the Daily Telegraph, “Unfortunately we have not received anything from the prosecutor’s office yet. The media have been informed, we have not.”
But Agnes Bron, a spokesperson for the Church’s Public Relations department in Brussels, said members shouldn't be surprised.
"Attacks against religion have existed for a very, very long time, except that they used to cast us into a lions' den," said Bron, according to local media interview translated on YouTube. "Today they haul us into courts of law. That's the only difference."