Masked protesters target Scientology's 'tactics'
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One side of East Carson Street had members of a "violent cult." The other side had "cyber-terrorists, communists and religious bigots."
At least, that's how the opposing groups saw each other.
Despite frigid weather, 40 to 50 people -- many concealing their identities with plastic masks, wigs and sunglasses -- gathered in the South Side across from the Church of Scientology's small Pittsburgh office yesterday afternoon, just as similar protests against the controversial religious movement were taking place in cities across the globe.
The protesters had been inspired by "Anonymous," a murky group of computer experts who accuse Scientologists of trying to suppress the spread of negative information about their actions on the Internet, including a recent video of actor Tom Cruise, the church's most prominent member.
"This whole thing started as a free speech issue," said Glenn Willen, 22, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who now works for Google.
Mr. Willen was one of the few protesters willing to reveal his name, although he said he wasn't "necessarily" a member of Anonymous. Others donned Guy Fawkes masks -- as in the movie "V for Vendetta" -- to hide their faces, claiming the church has a history of intimidating its critics.
There were only a few people inside the Scientology office, including two Pittsburgh police officers watching the protesters. No one would speak on the record.
Bruce Thompson, a spokesman in the Philadelphia office, released a lengthy statement accusing the protesters of orchestrating a series of hacking attacks on Scientology Web sites in recent weeks and mailing anthrax-like white powder to some churches.
"Anonymous is perpetrating religious hate crimes against the Church of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry," the statement reads.
It says the group is guided by the Communist Manifesto and Hitler's "Mein Kampf."
Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology in 1954. Its Pittsburgh office first opened in 2004, and it claims about 200 local members and 10 million worldwide.
Adherents believe that all people are immortal spiritual beings, known as "thetans." They work through their past-life memories as a self-help technique to achieve perfect mental health. They also reject psychiatry and the use of drugs to treat psychiatric conditions.
That belief has led to many controversies, including the heavily publicized 1995 death of Lisa McPherson, who died after spending two weeks in the care of church members in Clearwater, Fla.
According to the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, members removed Ms. McPherson, a fellow Scientologist, from a hospital where she had been receiving psychiatric evaluations.
Four years ago, her estate reached a confidential settlement with the church after a lengthy legal battle.
Scientology opponents chose yesterday, Ms. McPherson's birthday, to stage events in dozens of cities, from Sydney, Australia, to London to Clearwater, the home of Scientology's spiritual headquarters. Turnouts reached the hundreds at a few locations.
In Pittsburgh, most of the protesters were college students, including a group that drove from Penn State University.
"We're not attacking their beliefs. They can think whatever they want," said Lisa, a 19-year-old who asked that only her first name be used. "We're attacking their tactics."
The "tactic" that sparked these protests, they said, was an effort by the church to remove from Youtube.com a video of Mr. Cruise speaking about Scientology.
The church claims that the video, which is still on the Internet, was stolen, and any unauthorized use is a violation of copyright laws.
One of the most prominent local critics of Scientology is David Touretzky, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon who says the protesters are justified in worrying about retaliation.
He has been researching the church's censorship efforts since the early days of the Internet. As a result, he said, he's been followed by private investigators and his elderly parents have received phone calls saying their son is a "religious bigot."
Mr. Thompson, of the church's Philadelphia office, denied the intimidation tactics.
"I don't know what his problem is," Mr. Thompson said of the professor, who says he's an atheist.
"I think he's just got something against religion in general."
First Published February 11, 2008 12:00 am