Offending a slew of foreign dictators and an occasional ally is the price the United States government has long had to pay for taking on the role each year of self-appointed umpire on human rights around the world.
Other countries naturally tend to get a little peeved when the State Department accuses them of mistreating their citizens. But the latest annual report, released yesterday in Washington, left America's top diplomats tiptoeing through one of the trickiest minefields ever created.
It is a minefield involving one of Washington's closest allies, a famously controversial church, thousands of outraged Jews, movie stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Americans' love of religious freedom, a galactic prince named Xenu and allegations of Nazi-like behaviour.
The dispute is based on a crackdown in Germany against Scientology, the spiritual philosophy created in Los Angeles in 1954 by US science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Followers describe Scientology as a religion that helps them to overcome the emotional scars suffered in this and past lives. Critics call it a dangerous brainwashing cult, a money-making scam that preys on the psychologically vulnerable with a typically Californian blend of psychobabble, pop psychology and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo.
Germany is not the only nation in which the church has run into angry battles with governments, courts, the press and disillusioned ex-devotees. A court in Greece recently ordered the church to shut down for endangering its members' mental and physical health; Italy jailed 29 members for "criminal association"; in France a group leader was jailed for 18 months for making financial demands that allegedly pushed a follower to suicide.
Even the US Government, which is bound by much stronger constitutional guarantees of religious rights than those found in most countries, waged a long court battle against the church before being forced in 1993 to grant it religious tax exemptions. But Germany is an especially volatile environment, given the nation's post-Nazi sensitivity about totalitarianism.
For the past four years, the US State Department has mildly criticised Germany for its treatment of Scientology, which first gained widespread attention when jazz musician and Scientologist Chick Corea was banned from performing at government-sponsored events in Germany.
The issue gained momentum last year when Germany's federal and State governments and major political parties stepped up their campaigns against the church. Devotees claimed they faced discrimination, pointing out that in November, Bavaria introduced a requirement that all applicants for government jobs admit to any connection to Scientology.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's party, the Christian Democratic Union, banned Scientologists from its ranks. Politicians claimed the Church was reminiscent of the Nazi Party in its pursuit of a "cleansed humanity" insisting it was secretly bent on world domination. When asked how a group with 30,000 German members could threaten a nation of 80 million, critics said the Nazis had also begun as a small group.
The turning point for the State Department was the release of the movie Mission Impossible, which featured Tom Cruise, America's top box- office star.
Scientology has always made special efforts to recruit stars. Well-known members include Cruise and his Australian wife, Nicole Kidman, Travolta and Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley. A Scientology spokesperson in Los Angeles told The Weekend Australian that pop-singer-turned-Congressman Sonny Bono was also once involved in the church.
When the youth wing of Kohl's party organised a boycott of Cruise's movie, what had been an obscure debate about foreign religious freedoms became a question of US citizens, and the politically potent Hollywood movie industry, suffering religious discrimination.
The Scientologists, who have always been willing to use their enormous financial clout to go after critics in court or in the press, stepped up a newspaper campaign that compared the Kohl Government's activities to the Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1930s.
The church's advertising campaign was joined this month by an ad placed in the International Herald Tribune by Cruise's Hollywood lawyer, again drawing parallels to the treatment of the Jews in 1930s Germany. "Jews were at first marginalised, then excluded from many activities, then vilified and ultimately subjected to unspeakable horrors," said the full-page ad, which was signed by 34 well-known figures, including Dustin Hoffman, Goldie Hawn, Oliver Stone, writers Gore Vidal and Mario Puzo, and television producer Aaron Spelling. Many were Jewish and most had business connections with Cruise or Travolta but none were Scientologists.
In Germany, a comparison to Hitler and the Holocaust is the worst insult that can be levelled at a politician. An indignant Kohl was joined by the nation's Jewish leaders and all political parties in condemning the advertisement, calling it "an affront to the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust."
US State Department spokesman Nick Burns trod carefully when he said that his Government believed Scientologists had suffered from "some unfortunate reactions" by members of the German Government. At the same time Burns sided with the German Government against the allegations of Nazism, calling the parallel "outrageous ... terror tactics [and] historical amnesia".
At the heart of the dispute is the basic question of whether Scientology should be considered a religion. Sceptics point to an unauthorised biography of L. Ron Hubbard, Barefaced messiah, which reports that he told a convention of sci-fi writers in 1948 that if they wanted to make real money they should "start a religion" instead of writing novels.
Two years later Hubbard published Dianetics, setting out his theory that human beings are scarred by painful events earlier in this life or in previous lives. According to Hubbard, who died in 1986, those scars, called "engrams", can be removed by counselling, allowing followers to improve their IQ and inner peace. Followers are charged money for their counselling sessions and special seminars, moving up through a scale of spiritual awareness. Many devotees receive cash or free counselling for recruiting new members, often by approaching strangers and offering them a free "personality test" using a small electrical device or "E-meter" to measure engrams.
In 1991 Time magazine ran a cover story labelling the church "The Cult Of Greed", provoking a $US416 million libel suit. (Unable to prove its allegations, the church lost but says it will appeal.) Now claiming to have 8 million members worldwide, the church is reported to have revenues of more than $400 million a year and assets of more than $500 million.
The church believes in a "supreme being" but does not set down any doctrine on the nature of that being. At the heart of its doctrine are secret writings by Hubbard, which are accessible only to members who have paid thousands of dollars to reach the highest levels of awareness. A copy of these "scriptures" was obtained by the Washington Post in 1995 after a dispute between the church and a former member ended in a Los Angeles court. The writings were normally kept under tight guard and could only be viewed by members locked in a room under video surveillance but the disgruntled member deposited a copy with the court.
The documents were eventually published on the Internet and a copy was sent to The Washington Post. Alleging theft of trade secrets and breach of copyright, the church won court permission for house searches to confiscate the documents but some of the material was published in the Post. The Post reported that, according to the scriptures, 75 million years ago the evil leader of the Galactic Federation, Xenu, solved an overpopulation problem by freezing the excess people in alcohol and glycol and transporting them by spaceship to Teegeeak, now known as Earth.
There they were chained to a volcano and exploded by hydrogen bombs. The souls of those dead - "body thetans" - are the root of most human misery to this day. With Burns arguing that no government should "prosecute people for wrong thinking", this year's human rights report devoted longer and tougher language than normal to the question of Scientology in Germany.
While Germany "fully respects the human rights of its citizens", businesses "whose owners or executives were Scientologists may experience boycotts and discrimination, sometimes with government approval", the report said.
The president of the Church of Scientology International yesterday hailed the report as "the most decisive condemnation of German human rights terrorism since the end of World War II."
Reverend Heber Jentzsch said the report "strips the artificial veneer from German-style democracy. It exposes these people has having zero justification for their unscrupulous and outrageous hate campaign." But Burns strove yesterday to play down the issue. "In the great scheme of things in the world ... the problems in Germany are in no way comparable to problems in Iraq and in Sudan, or in China or in Iran, countries which have severe human rights problems.
"Let's put things in perspective."
Peter Wilson is The Australian's Washington correspondent.
"To do so would be to gravely misunderstand the tenor of the board's conclusions ... Scientology is evil; its techniques evil; its practice a serious threat to the community, medically, morally and socially; and its adherents sadly deluded and often mentally ill."
Hardly an auspicious beginning, but by the mid-1990s Scientology had a firm foothold in Australia with, according to a spokeswoman, Virginia Stewart, "two churches in Sydney, and one in Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth". Stewart estimates the total membership at about 150,000.
Tony McClelland, the president of CultAware - an organisation devoted to exposing cults in Australia - disputes Stewart's estimate. He believes there are probably fewer than 10,000 Scientologists in Australia.
Nevertheless, there seems to be an increasing acceptance of the organisation. Last year the Australian Broadcasting Authority decided that Melbourne's 3RRR had "gratuitously vilified" Scientology, with "extreme" remarks made by one of the guests on a program about New Age philosophies.
About the same time, Sydney City Council permitted the erection of an enormous three-dimensional "volcano" in George Street, which spruiks the works of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. But McClelland points out that the application for the billboard did not come from the Church of Scientology and the council may not have understood how the billboard was to be used.
Public criticism has been subdued, perhaps because it is well known that Scientologists are quick to sue (although it seems the organisation has allowed a longstanding suit against 60 Minutes to lapse).
On the whole, Australia, according to a statement issued by Stewart, "has a history of righting any wrongs in the area of human rights abuses."
"In the early 60s, a one-man inquiry in Melbourne (the Anderson inquiry) resulted in an Act which banned the practice of Scientology ... However, in 1974, the federal government effectively overturned any ban when the first licence was granted for a Scientology minister to perform marriages and in 1983, the High Court of Australia granted full religious recognition to the Church of Scientology."
These days, her statement says, Australia has "adopted a foundation of toleration for all beliefs and religious practices and is probably one of the fairest countries in the world, along with the United States, in this regard."