Followers and former members of Scientology appeared before a Belgian court, as the church is facing a possible ban from the country on a series of charges including fraud, extortion and illegal practice of medicine. Judges in Brussels heard about the church's financing and rituals on the first two days of the trial that opened earlier in October at the end of an 18-year investigation.
A defendant said worshippers paid up to €2,000 (£1,440, $2,200) for a 10-day "purification programme" they believed helped them become a better person. "It involves sauna sessions, plenty of sleep, running, healthy eating and taking supplements," the man, who chaired the Scientology's Belgian branch in the early 2000s, told the court, La Libre newspaper reported.
The vitamin supplements were in particular the focus of allegations church members illegally provided medical treatments without the necessary qualifications. Purification programme attendees were given a package of vitamins by another defendant who told the court she prescribed them according to the writings of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard and "her own readings".
"I had read that vitamins themselves are never a problem. It's when they are badly balanced that issues may arise," she told the court according to 7sur7 news website. She denied her activity was consistent with practising medicine.
The hearings revealed the church kept files detailing sanctions imposed on its adepts for minor breaches such as delays and discourtesy. A bonus system was also in place, which, according to presiding judge Yves Régimont, considered reporting deficiencies of fellow Scientologists to church authorities a good deed.
The proceedings took a bizarre twist when the former chairman, identified only as Vincent G, won a reprimand from the judge for telling the court he received orders from Hubbard, who died in 1986. "You received your orders from the afterlife, then," the judge said. "We speak French here, not scientologist," the judge snapped later at an evasive reply, La Dernière Heure reported.
Earlier, the congregation's former treasurer said Scientology Belgium made about €5,000 a week from book sales and classes. The woman said 9.5% of all income went to the mother church in Los Angeles, while 3% was transferred to the European head office in Copenhagen, according to Le Soir newspaper.
A total of 11 church members and former members as well as two church bodies are on trial on a series of allegations, including running a criminal organisation and violating privacy. Scientology Belgium denied the charges and, in a statement, accused authorities of abuses during the investigation.
The case came as actress Leah Remini, a former Scientology member, spoke out against the church and its most known follower, actor Tom Cruise in an interview with ABC. "Being critical of Tom Cruise is being critical of Scientology itself," she said. "As time goes on, you start to lose touch with the real world. The mindset becomes 'Us against them'," she said of what critics describe as a cult.