BONN — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Monday called the U.S.-German differences over the treatment of Scientologists "clearly a subject for bilateral discussion" but downplayed the issue in talks with German leaders and termed members' claims that they suffer from Nazi-style persecution "distasteful."
U.S. officials said the subject did not even arise in Albright's hourlong meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl and came up only in the final minutes of a longer session afterward with Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel.
"I think the issue here is one that can be resolved amicably and bilaterally between the U.S. and Germany," Albright said after the meetings. "But I must say any discussion which draws comparisons between what happened under Nazism and what is happening now [is] historically inaccurate and totally distasteful."
The treatment of the estimated 30,000 Scientologists in Germany has surfaced as a public issue in recent months. The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology has run ads in prominent newspapers comparing current actions against its members in Germany with the initial steps taken by Nazi Germany in the 1930s to exclude and persecute Jews--moves that led to the Holocaust.
Albright met the German leaders on the second stop of a global trip that will take her to nine countries in Europe and Asia before she returns home early next week.
Her talks here and later Monday in Paris with French President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Alain Juppe and Foreign Minister Herve de Charette were dominated by pressing transatlantic trade and security issues, including preparations for enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Albright was given an overtly warm reception in Paris as she worked to smooth a series of irritations that have plagued Franco-U.S. ties. She received a traditional two-kiss greeting from Chirac, a total of five kisses from De Charette (two on each cheek plus one on the hand) and a verbal olive branch at the end of her meeting with Juppe.
A senior U.S. official who attended the meeting quoted Juppe as noting: "We've had some ups and downs in our relationship. Why not have an up period?"
In the past year, Paris and Washington clashed openly on a number of issues, including how to resolve conflicts in Central Africa and who should be given commanding positions in a reorganized NATO.
In Monday's meeting in Bonn, Kinkel, not Albright, brought up the Scientology issue. In comments to reporters, Kinkel denied allegations of persecution.
"Scientology and its members are not being persecuted, in no way whatsoever," he said. "These people are free."
Germany is one of several European nations that have acted against the maverick church, which was organized around the writings of the late science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard.
Scientologists believe that through special training and instruction they can achieve a state of spiritual well-being, but observers have long charged that the training is exorbitantly priced and that the church looks like just another dubious self-help purveyor, dressed up as a religion.
Spain, like Germany, officially classifies Scientology as a for-profit business rather than a religion, while French police have had Scientology under surveillance for years.
Recent pro-Scientology ads, signed by such personalities as Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Stone, were followed by the publication last month of the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report, in which Germany was cited for putting the church "under increasing scrutiny" at federal and state levels.
The report noted that during the preceding year, Scientologist artists were prevented from performing or showing their works; the state government of Bavaria began refusing to accept Scientologist applicants for civil service jobs; and the youth wing of Kohl's ruling Christian Democratic Union organized regional boycotts of the film "Mission: Impossible" because its star, Tom Cruise, is a Scientologist.
The language used to describe the German actions was actually slightly milder than that used in the previous year's report, and the document also praised the German Interior Ministry for resisting pressure to place Scientology under surveillance.
But inaccurate news leaks in advance of the report's release that talked of a far tougher American stance, together with the newspaper ads, angered and dismayed many Germans.
On the French leg of Albright's trip--her first overseas foray since taking office--French officials smiled with apparent satisfaction at a joint De Charette-Albright news conference as she began her opening remarks in slightly accented but fluent French, then ended the session by responding to a Russian correspondent in his native language.
Albright also attended a brief commemorative ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Paris for Pamela Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to France who died earlier this month. Albright planted a tree in the embassy garden and praised Harriman as a woman of "wisdom, grace and dignity."