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University of York students joined an international protest against the Church of Scientology last weekend. The protest, which was organised by the internet campaign group Anonymous, took place outside the York branch of the Church on Sunday.
"Today's protest is to raise awareness in the public mind and, indeed, inside scientology itself as to what the organisation is doing," said a protesting student, who wished to remain anonymous. He referenced practices such as "child labour, the use of copyright laws in a religious context, and the aggressive tactics they use to suppress free speech of their members" as reasons for his participation.
"This is not a protest against the religion, anyone can practice that if they wish, this protest is against the Church of Scientology - the large corporate entity which is not about religion, but which takes millions and millions of their followers' money every year to bring them salvation," the protestor added.
The peaceful protest, which took place opposite the Scientology building in Mather House, on Hull Road, attracted around 30 protesters. Many were holding placards with messages for passing motorists such as "Britons against the 'church' of Scientology" and "Scientology is a CULT".
Graeme Wilson, Church of Scientology Public Affairs Director, labelled the protestors as "terrorists". "'Anonymous' is perpetrating religious hate crimes against Churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry. Religious bigotry of any nature is deplorable and profoundly affects the entire community. The terrorist crimes of 'Anonymous' should be condemned," he said.
The official Anonymous video, posted on YouTube, states: "[Anonymous] has decided that your organisation should be destroyed. For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind, we shall expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology."
The video goes on to call the Church "a serious opponent," and states that they are "prepared for a long, long campaign." "Your methods, hypocrisy, and the artlessness of your organisation have sounded its death knell," it continues.
However, a member of the group posted on an internet forum: "Anonymous bears no ill-will to the followers of Scientology, nor do we have any nefarious plans to go against their beliefs. Anonymous simply opposes the practices of the Church of Scientology - not the establishment itself."
The York student agreed with these aims, saying "[Anonymous] saw that the most effective way of doing that was to come out here, get away from the internet, and spread information, because that is what the Church of Scientology fears the most."
Wilson was unfazed by the protesters: "The actions of 'Anonymous' will not interrupt the Church's normal activities of serving its parishioners and the community, and the Church is working in coordination with the police to minimize the negative impact of this terrorist group."
The York branch of the Church, the 14th in Britain, opened last summer. Its website boasts "a full array of Life Improvement Courses, Dianetics stress testing, workshops and counselling."
The date of the protest was chosen by Anonymous to mark the death of Lisa McPherson, an American scientologist who, it is alleged by Anonymous, died at the hands of the Church following a car accident.
While the protest in York attracted only a small number of Anonymous members, protests took place outside Scientology locations all over the world.
An estimated 200 people assembled at the Church's headquarters in Blackfriars in London, while around 150 gathered in a protest in Edinburgh. Protests took place around the world including larger demonstrations in Sydney and New York. Most protests went ahead peacefully and without incident.