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Scientologists protest "religious discrimination'

Thousands of Church of Scientology followers marched through Berlin on Monday protesting what they call "the most odious religious discrimination . . . by the most oppressive German government" since World War II.

Waving U.S. and European flags and signs with quotations from church founder L. Ron Hubbard, the Scientologists cheered as church leaders stated their demands for equal rights and for the German government to draft a bill on religious freedom.

Christian and Muslim leaders also addressed the crowd.

The group has been placed under government observation as a threat to democracy, and Scientologists claim discrimination in all levels of German society.

Scientologists say they are denied political party membership, have their children rejected from schools and are blocked from buying real estate.

Monday's march came on the eve of a crucial court decision on whether Scientology is a religion or a business. The case, concerning a Scientology branch in a southwestern state, could be precedent-setting for the group's legal status across Germany.

The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology has fought other battles over whether it is a legitimate religion or a commercial operation. Only after a 25-year campaign did the church _ which has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater _ win U.S. tax-free status as a religion in 1993. But protesters Monday said that confronting Germany's treatment of Scientology was its toughest struggle.

"It's like they rolled the clock back 50 years," said Jack Staunsnyder, a Dane who lives in White Plains, N.Y., and traveled to Berlin for the march.

The march _ police put the number of protesters at 6,000 _ started with speeches before the bombed-out husk of Frederick William II Memorial Church, left unrepaired in memory of the ravages of World War II. The march was to end at Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate with a concert by Scientologist and singer Isaac Hayes.

The dispute between Germany and the church is muddy; the Germans give little specific evidence for their claims against the church.

But the crux of the problem seems to be Scientologist's secretive and hierarchical structure, which German critics say follows a totalitarian model.