From the shadows, Anonymous battles Scientology

Washington, USA - With their dark suits, leering masks and signs warning of what they call the "cult" of Scientology, the protest group Anonymous may startle a few visitors to Millennium Park on Saturday.

But that's what the participants are hoping for.

"Outfits and the outrageous help get people's attention," said Eric Szulczewski of Clarendon Hills, one of a few members of Anonymous willing to give his name.

An Internet-based group that claims more than 10,000 members worldwide, Anonymous has assembled in the downtown park four times to criticize the Church of Scientology, arousing the curiosity of onlookers and the consternation of Scientologists. The church has called it a cyber-terrorist organization, and members have been known to show up and monitor the protests.

Once they have peoples' attention, Szulczewski said, Anonymous delivers its message: that Scientology exploits its followers and encourages harm to outsiders. Scientologists counter that Anonymous is ignorant about their religion and has committed serious crimes against their church and others.

On Saturday in Millennium Park, Anonymous is planning its first Midwestern regional protest, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Don't expect a typical protest scene. Chat up a masked protester for a while and you may be offered some cupcakes or other baked goods, said to be common at Anonymous events. Members may strike an exaggerated pose along Michigan Avenue to turn drivers' heads or carry a sign reading: "Don't worry. We're from the Internet."

Participants in Anonymous—who shun the terms "member" and "group"— are unknown even to one another, going by the aliases they use on various Internet sites for exchanging information. Emerging from Internet forums sometime in the last few years, they have no leaders, no public representatives and no headquarters. They say their arguments against Scientology are based on Internet research and talking with former devotees.

"The computer geeks are now in alliance with the opponents of the church, and they have a capacity to organize electronically that traditional protest groups don't," said David Bromley, a professor who studies new religious movements at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He called the group "a new kind of opposition."

Controversy has long surrounded Scientology. Since the church was founded by American author L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, it has come under scrutiny by several national governments as well as the media, in part because Tom Cruise and other Hollywood actors have openly embraced the religion.

Scientology, which now claims more than 10 million followers, teaches that man can improve his life through the study of himself and his fellows, as well as by undergoing counseling sessions known as "auditing," said church spokesman Tommy Davis.

Anonymous alleges the church has charged exorbitant sums of money for spiritual teachings, encouraged members to harm those considered critical of the religion, and forced members to shun anti-Scientologist relatives—all statements that have been publicly affirmed by former Scientologists.

Church spokeswoman Karin Pouw denied each claim in a written statement, calling the allegations gross distortions or exaggerations.

Anonymous member Jason Tippett, of Normal, Ill., said there is a difference between protesting Scientology and protesting the church. Though no one participant can speak for all, he said, the consensus of Anonymous is that the church structure—not the religious practice—should be peacefully dismantled.

"Lots of us are atheist or have kind of odd religions," Tippett said. "If you're crazy and hurting someone, that's the line."

The Church of Scientology says Anonymous members are the hurtful ones, citing as one example a series of YouTube videos allegedly posted by the group that threaten to destroy the church. Davis said the church has reported to authorities thousands of cases of alleged harassment, threats and other crimes by the group.

"Anonymous is a group dedicated to hate and the fostering of intolerance and bigotry, regardless of any claims to the contrary," Pouw wrote. "Scientology is by no means the first, the last or the only targets of Anonymous."

Both the church and Anonymous concede that it's difficult to determine whether an individual act was committed by an Anonymous "member." Chicago police and the FBI said they couldn't confirm or deny any investigations involving Anonymous, but knew of no charges filed against participants or arrests made.

During a protest by Anonymous on July 12, about two dozen masked activists scattered along an entrance to the park on Michigan Avenue, wielding signs and pamphlets.

Tom Meir, who was visiting Chicago from Israel, decided to stop and talk to Anonymous members for several minutes. He said the group might actually be helping Scientology by publicizing it, since he hadn't heard much about the religion before.

"I just now heard the story behind it, other than from watching the ' South Park' episode," said Meir, 22. He vowed to look further into the matter.