The Belgian branch of the Church of Scientology has gone on trial for alleged fraud and extortion after a probe into complaints about its practices. The church, which faces a possible ban, claims it is being victimized.
In a packed Brussels courtroom, the prosecution demanded that the church explain where its finances were obtained.
The Belga news agency reported the group as explaining that its funding came from courses and training, as well as the sale of books and videos.
The church - famed for having celebrity adherents such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta - faces an outright ban if the trial ends with a conviction for fraud, extortion, running a criminal organization and violating the right to privacy.
Critics across the world have long contended that the church is a scam, and Belgian authorities organized an initial investigation into it in 1997, following complaints from former members.
A second investigation, leading to today's trial, got underway in 2008, after an employment agency alleged that the church had made bogus job offers purely to draw in and attract new members.
'Serious judicial abuses'
Last week, the church said it had "no doubt" it would be cleared, complaining that it was only the latest case of harassment against it since the 1990s.
"The Church of Scientology goes to court with the firm intention of seeing the fundamental rights of its Belgian members finally recognized," it said in a statement on Friday. "Not only does the Church contest the charges against it, which affect the fundamental rights of all Scientologists, it also intends to denounce the serious judicial abuses of the past 18 years," it said.
With its headquarters in Los Angeles, the Church of Scientology was founded by US science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954. With a worldwide membership of some 12 million people, it is recognized as a religion in the US and a number of European countries, including Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden.
While scientology is not banned in Germany, but court cases, media focus and reports by the domestic intelligence service have led to a declining number of followersScientology is not banned in Germany,
but court cases, media focus and reports by the domestic intelligence service have led to a declining number of followers.
rc/jil (AFP, Xinhua)