- Anonymous group claims protests staged in up to 93 cities
- Church of Scientology describes group as "cyber-terrorists"
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THOUSANDS of internet users using the moniker "Anonymous" protested outside Church of Scientology buildings across the US and Europe today after protests in Australia yesterday.
Members of Anonymous, a loose collection of internet users who declared "war" on the church last month, claim to have staged demonstrations in almost 100 cities across four continents in the last 24 hours.
The number of protestors in cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London, Manchester, Dublin, Stockholm, New York, Detroit and Washington were put at between 6000 and 8000 on an internet forum used by members of the group.
Yesterday around 150 people demonstrated outside the Church of Scientology in Sydney, while up to 200 attended a similar protest in Melbourne and 150 in Adelaide.
Protestors claimed the church financially exploited its members and suppressed free speech. In an open letter posted online, an Anonymous member said the group's aim was to remove the church's tax-exempt status as a religion and that members would not use violence to achieve their goals.
Most of the protestors wore masks or costumes and said they had chosen to remain anonymous to avoid the threat of legal action or retribution from the church, which has branded the group as "cyber-terrorists".
David Gerard, who was involved in demonstrations against the church in Australia in the 1990s, said Scientologists tried to intimidate protestors by threatening legal action against them and threatening to have them investigated.
"They try to intimidate protestors by threatening to investigate them, taking photos of them and so on... (I received) legal threats from them, defamatory leaflets put out about me and attempts to get me fired from my job," he said.
In a statement released yesterday, the Church of Scientology condemned the actions of Anonymous and said it was the group itself that was suppressing free speech by attacking Scientology websites.
"Anonymous is perpetrating religious hate crimes against Churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry," the church said.
"It is Anonymous that has repeatedly attempted to suppress free speech through illegal assaults on church websites so as to prevent internet users from obtaining information."
"They have also engaged in other harassment including threats of violence in telephone calls, fax transmissions and emails, not to mention the Anonymous mailing of white powder to dozens of our churches."
Most mainstream media outlets have ignored the protests, which have instead been documented by internet users on social networking and community websites.
A search for "Scientology" and "protest" on photo website Flickr returns almost 2000 images, while entering the terms into Google's Blog Search returns 4363 results. Video footage from Anonymous protests in more than 25 cities have been posted to YouTube in the last day.
The worldwide protests were organised to fall on the birthday of Lisa McPherson, who died while in the care of a branch of the church in 1995. Criminal charges filed against the church over Ms McPherson's death were dropped in 2000.
The protests in Australia were probably the biggest anti-Scientology demonstrations ever organised the country, Mr Gerard said.
Church of Scientology Australia – http://www.scientology.org.au
WikiNews coverage of protests – http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Wikinews_international...
YouTube videos from protests – http://youtube.com/results?search_query=scientology...