Protesters are gathering in Basel, Switzerland to counter the official opening ceremony of Scientology's latest Ideal Org. We talked to some of the campaigners -- including the man who set up the first org there.
|The entrance to the new Basel Ideal Org (Courtesy of Wilfried Handl)|
This might get loud.
Critics of Scientology – including local residents and former members – are mobilising Saturday in the Swiss city of Basel to protest the official opening of the latest Ideal Org.
There will be music, there will be speeches and the permit even clears them for two five-minute bursts of “ALLES WAS KRACH MACHT” – which appears to translate as “EVERYBODY MAKE A RACKET”. (Update: I've been told it's more like “Anything that makes a noise”, but you get the idea.) And the organiser, Thomas Erlemann, means business.
In his announcement about the protest, he invites participants to bring drums and trumpets. And the Swiss edition of the free paper 20 Minuten has a photo of him holding a Vuvuzela, those god-awful horns used during the 2010 South Africa World Cup. (There's a reason they were banned from last year's World Cup in Brazil.)
But he has also stressed – time and again – that this is to be a peaceful, festive affair. They are not looking for a confrontation.
Erlemann, who got official clearance for his counter-demonstration earlier this week, says it will run from from 1:30 pm local time (1130 GMT) at Burgfelderstrasse – just over the road from the official opening. Supporters from Austria, France and Ireland are among those expected at the three-hour event.
Erlemann, 50, is a social worker who lives next to the new 4,600-square-meter Scientology building at Burgfelderstrasse 215 in the Iselin district of Basel, a city in the mainly German-speaking part of Switzerland.
When he first learned about the new building last year, he knew next to nothing about Scientology. “I didn't even know who L. Ron Hubbard was,” he said. “So I started researching on the Internet.”
Once he had done his homework, he decided to start warning local people about their new neighbours – and the response was overwhelmingly positive. So he set up a Facebook page for his campaign – 1,404 likes as of Friday morning – and sent out a press release.
“For the last three or four weeks I have been getting calls nearly every day,” he said: newspapers, radio and the local television. “And now people who were members of Scientology have been getting in touch.”
When Erlemann started doing his research online, he quickly discovered that he wasn't the only person tracking development at Basel. Former Scientologist Wilfried Handl has been following developments from his base in Vienna, Austria, for several months now, via his German-language blog.
It was not long before the two of them were comparing notes and exchanging information. Handl does not get the impression that Scientology is booming in Switzerland – far from it. But he was still glad to find someone sounding the alarm.
“I consider him my friend, even if I haven't met him,” Handl told Infinite Complacency.
Scientology's official opening had originally been scheduled for early March, but they had to postpone because they weren't ready. In the meantime, critics of the movement have kept a close eye on developments at the building.
Rolf Moll, Scientology's spokesman in Basel, has told local papers they are expecting between a thousand and 1,500 people to attend their opening ceremony (Erlemann is hoping for more than 300 people at the counter-demonstration). Moll didn't say if David Miscavige would be attending.
Another ex-member who has been following developments is Izhar Perlman, an Independent Scientologist (OT VII) based in Portugal, who monitors the development of the Ideal Orgs at his “Idle Orgs” website.
Regulars over at the Underground Bunker will know that Tony Ortega has more than once noted the way Ideal Orgs have been the kiss of death to once-thriving Scientology missions, draining off resources into grand buildings that are as imposing as they are empty. That's pretty much the point that Perlman's website is making too (the clue's in the name).
Perlman started it in response to an April 2012 post by Mike Rinder over at Mark Rathbun's website, in which he dismissed Scientology's claims of massive expansion. After Rinder pointed out the moribund state of the US orgs, Perlman decided to apply the same idea internationally.
He launched the website, appealed for help and now he has people filing pictures and commentary on the various Scientology centres around the world – and it seems to be a similar story every time.
So far as one can see from the photos at the sites of both Handl and Perlman, Scientologists in Basel are keeping the shutters down and a low profile until the big day. Occasionally, they pick up a camera to snap anyone taking too much of an interest in their building.
The local media meanwhile has given the story extensive coverage. As well as talking to Erlemann they have interviewed several former members involved in the campaign – including one of the co-founders of the first Basel org.
Hania Mrkos' story
Amid what looks like a steady stream of sympathetic coverage in the local media – including more than one front-page splash – Hania Mrkos, who helped set up the original Basel org in the early 1970s, has been telling his story.
He took time to talk to us too – and his is a cautionary tale all too familiar to anyone familiar with Scientology.
Mrkos is 67 now, but as a young man in the late 1960s he fled communist Czechoslovakia for the West. He was someone who was influenced by the Beat generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg – a free-thinker even before the hippy era.
He spent several years travelling and exploring different spiritual paths: Gurdjieff, occult philosophies, Zen Buddhism – even the native American tradition. “But with these techniques I never found enough stability – I was trying to find something new that would stabilise my mind.”
Then around about 1973, a friend, a fellow seeker, introduced him to Scientology.
At the time, the movement had a major centre in Munich, in the southern part of what was then still West Germany. It was there, in the summer of 1973 that he sat the Oxford Capacity Analysis Personality Test – the point of departure for so many new recruits – and was duly told he had major problems.
“I was really bad,” he recalled. “I was totally wiped in this test. So they said the solution for that was the Communication Course.”
Some former members say the course is as much about conditioning people to submit to control as improving communications skills. But for Mrkos, it felt like just what he had been looking for. “I felt very, very good. 'Woah, great!' I had stabilised myself, I had a big gain. I could confront things. There was none of the indoctrination. I found it very useful.”
Not long afterwards, he was back in Basel introducing the people in his circle to the techniques he had discovered. Back in those days, he recalled, the hard-sell attitude did not dominate the movement. “There was no pressure at all, it was very spontaneous.”
And that's how the Basel centre grew: spontaneously, with Mrkos and his friend introducing fellow seekers to the techniques they had discovered. And since, as students, they didn't have much money, they paid for their own courses by selling books on the street and drawing more people in. (As he recalls, the book that really sold the best was not one of Hubbard's but Ruth Minshull's Miracles for Breakfast – long since purged from corporate Scientology reading lists but still popular among the independents.)
For a couple of years, things went smoothly enough: they would sell books and introduce people to the basic principles during the week; come the weekend, they would jump into a minibus and drive the 240 miles to Munich to get more training and stock up on books. “For us it was to expand our consciousness, to understand more about what was going on,” he said.
Even then though, the pressure from above was beginning to build up. “We were forced to produce more people for the seminars and I started to be – I didn't like it too much.”
Because the Basel org had expanded so quickly, Mrkos and his then wife decided to move to another Swiss city, Berne, and start a new operation there. Again, he said, their unorthodox approach – mixing free talks and seminars with community activities such as photography workshops and concerts – allowed them to build a following. (He even recalls meeting Diana Hubbard during this period: as he recalled it, she was a very good pianist.)
They were aware of a more regimented, hard-nosed side to Scientology, but they tried to keep as far away from it as possible.
“By then, we were sending people to Copenhagen,” he said – in part because they were unhappy with the increasingly harsh regime at Munich. “We were very successful.”
But then in 1976 they started having problems with Munich officials. Since he believed in the system, Mrkos asked for a Committee of Evidence in which he could put his case. Instead he walked into a Johannesburg Security Check, the most brutal of the interrogations Hubbard devised.
28. Have you ever had intercourse with a member of your family?
29. Have you ever been sexually unfaithful?
30. Have you ever practiced Sodomy?
31. Have you ever consistently made a practice of sexual perversion?
32. Have you ever slept with a member of a race of another color?
33. Have you ever committed culpable homicide?
34. Have you ever bombed anything?
35. Have you ever murdered anyone?
“They made me do it 12 times in a row,” he said.
“They even inspected my teeth: Czechoslovakia was a communist country, my father was in the military – they thought I was some kind of communist spy.”
After that, understandably, he stepped back from Scientology for a while.
Commie spy or not however, it seemed that they still needed him when things were not going well. On more than one occasion, he said, he got called in to try to sort out problems that cropped up in the Basel org that he had helped set up.
But as the movement became increasingly authoritarian in the 1980s, he continued to have brushes with Scientology's hierarchy.
On one occasion he was summoned to Basel for what was meant to be an auditing session. But when he walked into the room for the meeting he found three Sea Org officers waiting for him: two of them standing and one sitting. But when they tried to start in on the heavy-duty interrogation again, this time he was prepared.
“I told them 'This is not standard auditing and this is illegal what you are doing here. You have no legal power here. So if I am not out of here in half an hour, my wife will go to Basel police.'”
That did the trick.
Paying the price
By this time, Mrkos was no longer a penniless student. He had built up a profitable real-estate business and so he and his wife were able to pay their way up the Bridge. So life was looking up.
Then in the 1980s he went to Clearwater, Florida, and Flag Land Base, which markets itself as the center of excellence for Scientology auditing. He had signed up to do the Ls, an extremely expensive set of auditing. It was a disaster, he said.
“These techniques are very powerful, but also dangerous in the hands of dilletantes,” Mrkos explained. “And it is even more dangerous when they are using it to get more money from people.
“I actually went almost insane … I was totally fucked up,” he said. “They wanted more money from me, so they didn't finish the processes … I crashed and went totally phobic.”
In the end, he was in such a mess he had to be accompanied on the flight back to Switzerland. “I was really crazy.” It took him two years to recover from the experience, he said, and at time he was suicidal. In the meantime, his business collapsed and his marriage ended.
Looking back now, he can see how out of control the hard sell in the movement had become. Don't bother to keep back money to pay your taxes, they told him – it will only go to funding the Psychs. “And at the time, I have to confess, I listened to them.”
But the hardest blow has been the loss of his daughter, Jelena.
Against his better judgment, he said, he let her attend the Scientology-run Delphi School in Oregon, in the United States. Far from her parents' influence, it was not hard for the Sea Org recruiters to talk her into signing her billion-year contract.
Then in 2012, they tried to sell him the Golden Age of Tech – again – expecting him to return the old materials and pay through the nose for the newly repackaged versions. But they had already been through this experience at least once before.
“When they said 'This is the real technology, the real LRH, I said 'No. They are just trying to our money. And that was the first time I decided to look outside, on the Internet, about Scientology. … I decided I had to understand what happened to me, to understand what was wrong with this technology.”
So for the first time, he started researching Scientology on the Internet. And when he read the accounts from former senior figures such as Mike Rinder and Debbie Cook – someone he knew personally – he pulled back further from the movement.
Then one day – June 12, 2014 – he got a phone call from his daughter. “There was a lot of noise in the background and I said 'What's going on?' and she was very depressed. She said that I was against her group and so she had to disconnect from me.”
So far as he can tell, it was his persistent refusal to buy into the repackaged materials from the Golden Age of Technology that provoked the final crisis. Now he is taking legal action against Scientology – in the Swiss courts and in the United States – to recover his money.
“They are spitting on human rights, on democracy, everything,” said Mrkos. “They don't accept freedom. Switzerland is a free country with free people and they are enslaving people.”
And that's what people in Basel need to understand, he says. If you enter Scientology you are gradually delivering yourself into slavery.
“In the beginning, they do a little bit, and then a bit more and then you get more and more enslaved.” And he is not just talking about the Sea Org members, he says. “Most Scientologists are heavily in debt.
“I don't understand – now we know so much about Scientology's crimes – that some countries can accept them as a church.”
This is an extended version of the piece published earlier today at Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker.