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Originally published Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Anti-Scientology sentiment grows, especially on Internet

"We were born. We grew up. We escaped. " So reads the motto of ExScientologyKids.com, a Web site launched last week by young women raised...

Los Angeles Times

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"We were born. We grew up. We escaped."

So reads the motto of ExScientologyKids.com, a Web site launched last week by young women raised in the Church of Scientology who are speaking out against the religion. Their Web site accuses the church of physical abuse, denying some children a proper education and alienating members from family.

One of the women, Jenna Miscavige Hill, is the niece of David Miscavige, the head of the church. Kendra Wiseman is the daughter of Bruce Wiseman, president of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a Scientology-sponsored organization opposed to the practice of psychiatry.

The day before ExScientologyKids.com launched, another inflammatory allegation about the church began to circulate virulently online. "L. Ron Hubbard Plagiarized Scientology," read a headline at the Internet culture blog BoingBoing. The post linked to images of a translated 1934 German book called "Scientologie," which critics say contains similar themes to Hubbard's Scientology, which he codified in 1952, according to a church Web site.

These were just the latest in a series of Scientology-related stories across the Internet in recent weeks, testing the church's well-established ability to tightly control its public image.

The largest thorn in the church's side has been a group called Anonymous, a diffuse online coalition of skeptics, hackers and activists, many of them young and Web-savvy. The movement has inspired former Scientologists to come forward and has trained an Internet spotlight on any story or rumor that portrays Scientology in unflattering terms.

Facing a steady stream of negative publicity and a growing number of critical voices, Scientology has found itself on the defensive. The church has referred to Anonymous as a group of "cyberterrorists" and, in a statement, said the group's aims were "reminiscent of al-Qaida spreading anti-American hatred and calling for U.S. destruction."

"These people are posing extremely serious death threats to our people," church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said in a phone interview. "We are talking about religious hatred and bigotry."

A recent video posted to YouTube contained a threat to bomb a Southern California Scientology building. An FBI spokeswoman said an investigation was in progress, but that no suspects had been identified.

Reporters tread carefully when writing about Scientology, fearful that lawsuits and other retaliation would follow any story that Scientology did not like. But that might be changing.

"Before this Internet onslaught," said Douglas Frantz, a contributing editor at Portfolio magazine who covered Scientology for The New York Times in the 1990s, "they were always able to go after their critics and do a good job of being able to discredit or intimidate them."

The current wave of anti-Scientology activity began in January when a video of actor Tom Cruise extolling the religion's tech-based approach to enlightenment was leaked onto YouTube, where users holding it up to ridicule copied and recopied it; several sites posted it without hesitation.

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It wasn't long before Nick Denton, who as publisher of the blog syndicate Gawker Media had put the video online first, received a legal threat from a law firm representing Scientology, alleging copyright infringement. But Denton refused to take the video down.

"It was an awesome news story," Denton wrote in an e-mail. "If we didn't race to post it up, some other site would have. That, rather than litigation by Scientology, was the fear going through my mind."

The church's campaign with the Cruise video became a rallying cry for Anonymous, which saw efforts to remove the videos from YouTube as an unwanted incursion into the domain of digital culture, where information and media, copyrighted or not, are often exchanged freely.

In a YouTube video of its own, Anonymous declared open war. Early on, the group also staged cyberattacks on Scientology Web sites.

But on Feb. 10, masked Anonymous members picketed at Scientology locations, including Seattle, chanting slogans and handing out fliers. The protests generated another wave of online media, little of it in praise of Scientology.

The result has been that just about any story critical of Scientology — even those that have been publicly accessible for years — can gain immediate Web currency.

In addition, the clamor generated by Anonymous has raised the profile of the small but vehement anti-Scientology community that existed before Anonymous and even made for some cross-pollination between the two camps.

Still, according to Scientology spokeswoman Pouw, the church views the Internet as a positive tool. It is, Pouw said, "concentrating on using the Internet as a resource for promoting its message and mission in this world, not as a ground for litigation."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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