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Church of Scientology opens center in Israel

Scientology is expanding abroad, this time to the Middle East.

TEL AVIV— Late last month, on Jaffa’s grand but timeworn Jerusalem Boulevard, the Alhambra Theater, was reopened to much fanfare. Once an art deco jewel, its two-year restoration was so meticulous that even the old neon sign, in stylized Hebrew lettering, was reincarnated.

On the other side of its gleaming white tower, jutting out over the road, is a smaller sign displaying two overlapping triangles and a capital S — the international sign for Scientology. Inside, it has been thoroughly repurposed.

Tel Aviv’s Alhambra has been reborn as the Center for Scientology, one of a growing network of 9,000 meeting places worldwide.

The opening was presided over personally by David Miscavige, chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center and ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion.

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It was heralded by a cloud of flamboyant opacity.

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Two representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office graced the ceremony with their presence: director for the Bedouin Sector, Mohammad Kaabia, and senior coordinator on the Status of Minority Women, Rania Pharyra.

“When it comes to all we strive for — for freedom, to be included and embraced by one’s fellow man — there is no group that better bears these marks than Scientology,” Kaabia said at the opening, according to a Scientology press release. “You teach man his rights, you prevent drugs in schools, you take care to build up the individual and you inspire kindness toward one another. I believe we must introduce these programs into all Arab and Bedouin sectors across Israel.”

Pharyra made reference to one of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s books of instruction, “The Way to Happiness,” which she called “a new way to understand the purpose of humanity — my purpose, your purpose.”

Neither has denied making the remarks, but in response to questions about their participation, David Becker, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said the two politicians appeared under false pretenses.

“The two individuals in question have stated, in response to your inquiry, that they attended the Jaffa event in a private capacity, without any connection whatsoever to their respective official positions. They maintain that they were invited by an organization based in Jaffa called “Israel Says No to Drugs” and that they were invited by that organization solely as private citizens who are deeply involved in promoting social issues in their sectors.”

“The two individuals affirm that their comments at the event were concerning the ‘Israel Says No to Drugs’ organization only, and neither their comments nor their presence at the event had anything to do with any other organization,” he said.

The public announcement issued by the Church of Scientology shows both making remarks while surrounded by icons of Scientology, and both mentioning the church.

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The prime minister’s office had no further comment.

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Over a dozen requests to three Scientology spokespeople in Israel yielded no response to the question “how many Scientologists are there in Israel?”

Similarly, none of the Israeli officials who participated in the building’s inauguration responded to questions about how the Church will adherence to Israel’s fairly strict anti-missionary laws, in the context of Scientology’s history of active recruitment.

“As long as the court doesn’t determine they’re illegal, I’m OK with them. We are pluralistic. We have to accept them. We certainly can’t stop them,” said Meital Lehavi, a City Council member who attended the opening.

Lehavi said she embraces any religious enterprise — from Mormons to the tiny Jewish cult known as Adi Adonai.

“I participate in a lot of things,” she said, sighing. “Jaffa is 7,000 years old. It’s the first city mentioned in the Bible. It has seen Crusaders, Muslims, Jews, all the world’s peoples. So I don’t see anything that unusual in Scientology.”

Like many international franchises, the religion of L. Ron Hubbard adapts itself to local tastes. In Israel, it is not called the Church of Scientology but the Ideal Center of Scientology.

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Sarale Segal, one of Scientology’s local spokespeople, said that it has been present in Israel since the 1950s, when several dozen followers of Hubbard’s book, “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,” began gathering here.

Following the establishment of the first Israeli center for Scientology in 1972, she said, the movement “became popular and hundreds of Israelis joined.”

Some, however, are skeptical about the group’s motives.

A well-known member of Israel’s media élite who dabbled in Scientology before abruptly leaving it said, “They have a very bad image and they know it, so they go to great lengths to gain any sort of legitimacy. They operate all sorts of community services — anti-drug, anti-crime, school literacy — and they claim excellent results. They don’t mention Scientology as a religion. They invite communal and political figures to their events and hope it’ll help with their image.”