This regimented mass represents the "Sea Organization," the most dedicated and elite members of the Church of Scientology. For the past thirty years, Scientology has made the city of Clearwater its worldwide spiritual headquarters — its Mecca, or its Temple Square. There are 8,300 or so Scientologists living and working in Clearwater — more than in any other city in the world outside of Los Angeles. Scientologists own more than 200 businesses in Clearwater. Members of the church run schools and private tutoring programs, day-care centers and a drug-rehab clinic. They sit on the boards of the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce and the Boy Scouts.
In July 2004, The St. Petersburg Times dubbed Clearwater, a community of 108,000 people, "Scientology's Town." On the newspaper's front page was a photograph of Scientology's newest building, a vast, white, Mediterranean Revival-style edifice known within Scientology circles as the "Super Power" building. Occupying a full square block of downtown, this structure, which has been under construction since 1998, is billed as the single largest Scientology church in the world. When it is finally completed — presumably in late 2006, at an estimated final cost of $50 million — it will have 889 rooms on six floors, an indoor sculpture garden and a large Scientology museum. The crowning touch will be a two-story, illuminated Scientology cross that, perched atop the building's highest tower, will shine over the city of Clearwater like a beacon.
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Scientology — the term means "the study of truth," in the words of its founder and spiritual messiah, the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard — calls itself "the world's fastest-growing religion." Born in 1954, the group now claims 10 million members in 159 countries and more than 6,000 Scientology churches, missions and outreach groups across the globe. Its holdings, which include real estate on several continents, are widely assumed to value in the billions of dollars. Its missionaries — known as "volunteer ministers" — take part in "cavalcades" throughout the developing world and have been found, en masse, at the site of disasters ranging from 9/11 to the Asian tsunami to Hurricane Katrina. Within the field of comparative religions, some academics see Scientology as one of the most significant new religious movements of the past century.