The Opinion Pages | OP-ED COLUMNIST
Scientology’s Chilling Effect
When I was at Fortune magazine in the 1990s, one of my colleagues was a reporter named Richard Behar. He had a special lock on his door, and he wouldn’t even let the janitor in to empty his wastebasket. He used a secret phone, which he kept hidden in a desk drawer, so that calls made to sources couldn’t be traced back to him.
At first, I just thought he was paranoid. But I soon learned that he had come by his paranoia honestly. In May 1991, as a correspondent for Time magazine, Behar had written an exposé of Scientology, calling it a “hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”
Before the article was published, Behar says, he was followed by private detectives, who also contacted acquaintances, asking whether he had financial problems. After its publication, that sort of harassment continued, he says — along with a major libel suit. Although the suit was eventually dismissed, it took years, and cost millions of dollars to defend. Behar’s deposition alone lasted 28 days.
What brings this to mind is Alex Gibney’s fine new HBO documentary about Scientology, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” which is based on the book “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright. (Disclosure: I played a small role in Gibney’s 2005 documentary on Enron.) “Going Clear,” which was shown at Sundance in late January, is scheduled to air on HBO on March 29.
It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Scientology without getting into the issue of intimidation. As the film notes, going on the offensive against its critics is part of Scientology’s doctrine, handed down by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. “It is the antithesis of turn the other cheek,” says Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking official who left the church in 2004 and has since been subjected to Scientology harassment, as the film documents. It also retells the story, first reported in The New York Times, of how, in 1993, Scientology won a 25-year fight against the Internal Revenue Service, which had refused to grant it nonprofit status. Scientologists filed several thousand lawsuits, against not just the I.R.S. but individual I.R.S. officials, and hired private detectives to look for dirt and conduct surveillance operations.
But the film doesn’t really tackle the intimidation of journalists. One of the first journalists to take on Scientology, in the early 1970s, was a young freelance writer named Paulette Cooper. Scientology’s retaliation was astounding. It framed her for supposedly sending bomb threats to the church. The documents it forged were so convincing that she was indicted in 1973 and was fully exonerated only when the F.B.I., acting on a tip, raided Scientology offices and discovered the plot against her in 1977.
Over the course of the next three decades-plus, there were a handful — though only a handful — of tough-minded articles like Behar’s. “Everybody who wrote about Scientology knew they were taking a risk,” Wright told me. You’ve heard of the “chilling effect?” Scientology offered a prime example of how it works.
Then, in 2009, The Tampa Bay Times (then The St. Petersburg Times) published an important series about Scientology, based on interviews with high-ranking defectors, including Rathbun and Mike Rinder, who had been Scientology’s top spokesman. The series was the first to suggest that Scientology had a longstanding culture of abuse. Amazingly, the church did not sue.
Vanity Fair published a big piece about Scientology. (This was after the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes; Cruise, of course, is the most famous Scientologist of them all.) No lawsuit. Anderson Cooper did a series on CNN. The BBC weighed in. Ditto and ditto.
Sure enough, when I spoke to Wright and Gibney, they said that the pushback they had gotten was nothing they couldn’t handle. A Scientology website has posted a video attacking the two men, and the church has also taken out full-page newspaper ads denouncing “Going Clear.” “I didn’t expect quite this much venom,” Gibney told me, but, he added, “I regard it as good publicity.”
(In a lengthy statement, a Scientology spokesperson said that Gibney had “lied to us repeatedly,” that Marty Rathbun had “destroyed evidence and lied under oath,” that a judge had described Behar as “biased,” and that in defending itself against Gibney’s “propaganda and bigotry,” it was speaking “for those who are subjected to religious persecution and hatred.”)
Gibney also noted that the people who are really harassed these days aren’t journalists but those who have left the church, like Rathbun, who told me that, with more people leaving and talking about the church, it no longer has the resources to sic private eyes on all its critics. He also thinks the Internet has hurt the church, because it is far easier to find out information about it — and many of its supposed secrets are posted online for all to see.
“Part of the message here is that you don’t need to fear Scientology anymore,” says Wright. It’s long overdue.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 24, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Scientology’s Chilling Effect.
China executes father and daughter cult members for murdering woman in McDonald’s
Monday 02 February 2015
China has executed two members of what authorities called an “evil cult” for beating a woman to death in a McDonald’s restaurant.
The deaths of Zhang Lidong and his daughter, Zhang Fan, were announced on Monday by the Yantai Intermediate People’s Court in the eastern province of Shandong.
A spokesperson said the Supreme People’s Court approved the death penalty after a case review because the crimes were “extremely serious, their means brutal and the incident brought an extremely bad social effect”.
The pair were reportedly trying to recruit their victim for the “Church of the Almighty God” group, known in Chinese as Quannengshen, in May last year when the attack started.
The 35-year-old woman, Wu Shuoyan, had refused to give her phone number to the group in the town of Zhaoyuan.
Zhang Fan and her accomplice, Lyu Yingchun, then claimed Wu was possessed by an “evil spirit,” and Zhang used a chair to bludgeon her head before stamping on her face, while inciting other cult members to join the attack, China’s Xinhua news agency reported.
Her father allegedly beat the victim so hard with a restaurant mop that the handle snapped, while group members stopped McDonald’s staff intervening or calling the police. Wu died at the scene.
An online video emerged shortly afterwards showing a man resembling Zhang Lidong hitting an unseen person with a mop, shouting “Damn you, devil! Go to hell!” as a woman yelled “Kill her! Beat her to death!”
Zhang Lidong reportedly said in a subsequent interview that he believed Wu was a demon and that “we had to destroy her”.
Church of the Almighty God followers believe that Jesus was resurrected as Yang Xiangbin, the wife of the sect’s founder, Zhao Weishan, also known as Xu Wenshan. The couple fled to the United States in 2000.
The anti-Communist sect, established in the 1990s in central Henan Province, claims to have millions of followers. Since the murder, which sparked public outrage, Chinese authorities have reportedly detained more than a thousand Church of the Almighty God members.
In 2012, China launched a crackdown on the group, which called for a “decisive battle” to slay the “Red Dragon” Communist Party, and preached that the world would end that year.
Zhang Lidong and Zhang Fan were known as particularly avid followers, authorities claimed, holding hundreds of rallies in Zhaoyuan, printing leaflets and spreading articles online over five years.
They were among five cult members tried on murder charges in August.
Lyu was given a life sentence by Shandong’s Yantai Intermediate People’s Court for “intentional homicide and undermining law enforcement using heresy” as well as being “deprived of political rights for life” for illegal “cult activities”.
Zhang Hang and Zhang Qiaolian, two other cult members who were relatives of the executed pair, were sentenced to ten and seven years in prison respectively.
The Church of the Almighty God is banned in China, along with other spiritual groups labelled “cults” by authorities.
Chinese law defines a cult is “an illegal organisation that tries to control people by deifying the sect leader, deludes members under the guise of religion, and engages in activities that harm society”, according to state media.
China is thought to carry out the most executions of any country in the world annually. Although the actual number of deaths is a state secret, estimates range between 2,000 and 4,000 a year.
In its 2015 report, Human Rights Watch said that although the national constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the government restricts religious practices to officially approved mosques, churches, temples, and monasteries organised by five officially recognised religious groups.
“Any religious activity not considered by the state to be “normal” is prohibited,” the report says, with activities, publications and financial records of all bodies strictly controlled.
“The government classifies many religious groups outside of its control as ‘evil cults’.”
Thousands of alleged cult members have been arrested in the last year.