U.S. Immigration Court Grants Asylum to German Scientologist

Source: New York Times
Date: November 8, 1997

A Federal immigration court judge has granted asylum to a German member of the Church of Scientology who claimed that she would be subjected to religious persecution had she been required to return to her homeland, the woman's lawyer and a Scientology official said today.

While few details of the case were available, it is believed to be the first time the United States has given asylum protection to a Scientologist. The Church of Scientology has been waging a highly public international campaign against what it considers discrimination against its members by the German Government.

The asylum case comes as the treatment of Scientologists in Germany remains a topic of dispute between Washington and Bonn, which has refused to recognize Scientology as a religion.

Officials at the German Embassy in Washington said today that they had not heard of the asylum decision and would have no reaction until it was confirmed.

For the last four years, the State Department has criticized Germany's treatment of Scientologists in its annual human rights report. But the dry language of the reports did not reach a level that might have been expected to justify asylum.

An immigration court judge decided to approve the woman's application to remain in this country after a hearing last February. Officials at the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington said they were unaware of the case.

John E. Lund, an immigration lawyer in Tampa who represents the German woman, said his client was in the United States legally.

"She voluntarily applied for asylum," Mr. Lund said, "and the matter was referred to the immigration court by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The court made the decision, based on her individual facts, that she should be granted asylum."

Mr. Lund said the woman's case was not part of any orchestrated effort by the Church of Scientology to publicize its claims of discrimination.

"Our matter was totally outside of any campaign by the church," Mr. Lund said. "This individual was acting solely on her own."

To protect relatives still in Germany, Mr. Lund and Scientology officials refused to disclose the woman's name or where she lived.

The asylum process is closed to the public for the protection of asylum seekers, said Richard L. Kenney, a spokesman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration courts. Mr. Kenney said the decision of an immigration judge was final unless the Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed.

Kurt Weiland, an official with the Church of Scientology International, said a dozen German witnesses testified at the immigration hearing that the woman faced severe persecution in her homeland.

''She proved her suffering, the damage she experienced emotionally and economically, and how she was ostracized from society, all for no other reason than her religion,'' Mr. Weiland said.

German officials consider Scientology an extremist organization dedicated to bilking its parishioners of money. The German Government has barred Scientologists from membership in major political parties and placed the organization under surveillance. Some local governments have prohibited Scientologists from holding public service jobs.

Church members in Germany also claim that they have been barred from other types of jobs, that their businesses have been boycotted and that their children have been expelled from public schools.

Under international standards and American law, actions that restrict a person's rights to practice his or her religion, including prohibitions against membership in political parties or holding government jobs, could constitute persecution, said Karen Musalo, a lawyer and director of the international human rights project at Santa Clara University in California.

''Taken cumulatively,'' Ms. Musalo said, ''these constitute serious forms of discrimination against the practitioners of a particular religion for the sole reason of their membership in this religion.''

Under immigration law, religious persecution is one of five justifications for granting asylum to a foreigner in the United States. The others are race, nationality, political opinion and membership in a particular social group. People who are granted asylum are generally allowed to become permanent residents within a year.

In the first eight months of the current fiscal year, immigration judges heard 54,276 applications for asylum and granted 4,293 of them.

Mr. Kenney said that a decision made by a judge in one case would not be binding on applications by people in similar situations. Each request for asylum, he said, is judged individually.

A State Department spokesman, James P. Rubin, said he was unaware of the Scientology asylum case. But Mr. Rubin said the treatment of Scientologists in Germany was discussed on Wednesday by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in a meeting in Washington with Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel of Germany.

The Clinton Administration has discussed the issue several times with German officials. While maintaining that Scientologists should be granted religious freedom, Ms. Albright herself accused the church of distorting history last summer when it compared its treatment to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

In January, 34 show-business celebrities ranging from actors to studio heads signed a $56,000 full-page advertisement in The International Herald Tribune scolding Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany for his Government's ''shameful pattern of organized persecution'' of the Church of Scientology.

The German Government has maintained that Scientology is not a religion, but a profit-making venture. Officials have argued that restricting the activities of the church members is necessary to protect against the expansion of an extremist group in a nation with acute sensitivities on the subject.

Until a landmark reversal in 1993, the United States Government also refused to recognize Scientology as an organized religion. In that year, the Internal Revenue Service granted tax-exempt status to the organization.

Congress entered the dispute last week. The House International Relations Committee approved a resolution condemning the German Government for its treatment of Scientologists and members of other minority religions.

The resolution drew a sharp protest from Foreign Minister Kinkel, who called the accusations of discrimination baseless and argued that Scientology's goals in Germany were exclusively economic.