In a groundbreaking case, a Paris court will decide for the first time whether to dissolve the Church of Scientology in France, which is facing charges of organized fraud.
The demand was made by French prosecutors on Monday (June 15) as they wrapped up their case against the church's Paris headquarters and bookshop. If found guilty, the institutions may also face a nearly $6 million fine.
Six members of the church are also on trial, and may also face heavy fines along with prison sentences if convicted.
The plaintiffs, two former Scientologists, claim the church conned them into spending tens of thousands of dollars in bogus products in the 1990s, including an "electrometer" that the church says can measure energy levels.
But the church, which claims a membership of 45,000 in France, rejects the accusations and claims it is being persecuted.
The plaintiffs, are "apostates who ... want to criticize their ex-religion," Fabio Amicarelli, a European Scientology representative, told French media recently.
While the charges pose the most serious challenge to the French church to date, they are only the latest clash in a nearly two-decade long battle against Scientology. Several fraud cases have already been judged and several members convicted of embezzlement in France, where Scientology is viewed with deep suspicion.
In one case, the head of the church's Lyons chapter was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 1996 for his role in a member's suicide.
Founded in 1954 by late American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the church is considered a religion in the United States with adherents that include Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
The French government, however, lists Scientology as a sect, reflecting an official intolerance of unorthodox religions. Indeed, the government even has an official sect watchdog body -- known as MIVILUDES, the Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances.
A government report published in May said the number of religious sects had tripled in France over the past 15 years to at least 600 different movements.
Christianity Today's coverage of Scientology, including a brief explainer of why Christians object to it, dates back to 1969.