By MARCUS BARAM
MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 3, 2007
A view of the collapsed I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. (R. Kent Barnard)
They’re ubiquitous at almost every disaster zone, assisting the wounded and consoling grieving families, from Ground Zero to Indonesia to New Orleans and now Minneapolis.
The Church of Scientology and its globetrotting team of volunteer ministers have been active over the last several years, arousing the ire of critics who read unholy motives into the group’s charitable works.
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Soon after Wednesday’s bridge collapse, at least 20 Scientology volunteers in Minneapolis and surrounding areas headed to the disaster zone, according to a spokeswoman for the church.
“They’re helping the Red Cross, helping with logistical organization — food, directing traffic and one-on-one counseling,” the church’s Karin Pouw told ABCNews.com.
The call to action was typical for the controversial church, which sent 20 ministers to console survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting, at least 800 volunteers including celebrity adherents John Travolta and Kirstie Alley to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, and teams of therapists to assist Ground Zero rescue workers at the World Trade Center site.
The church says that its yellow-shirted 95,000 ministers around the world perform good deeds out of a sense of charity.
Sometimes they hand out “The Way to Happiness,” a pamphlet written by the church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and offer a forms of therapy called “touch assists” and “nerve assists.”
But critics accuse the church of using these disasters to convert people at their most vulenrable moments to their religion.
Longtime critic Rick Ross, who runs a watchdog Web site, cultnews.net, maintains that the church milks human tragedy to promote itself.
After the church’s volunteers headed down to Blacksburg, Va., to assist survivors of the shooting massacre, Ross told the New York Daily News that he was skeptical of their motives.
“They did this at Ground Zero [after 9/11],” Ross told the paper. “They did this in New Orleans [after Hurricane Katrina]. They look for very high-profile disasters that can be milked for photo ops” to promote the Church.
After 9/11, the church received a commendation from the New York Fire Department for its relief efforts, but critics accused it of applying therapies such as rhythmic massages that some mental health professionals considered medically dubious.
“The public needs to understand that the Scientologists are using this tragedy to recruit new members,” Michael M. Faenza, the president of the National Mental Health Association said in 2001. “They are not providing mental health assistance.”
In Minneapolis, the group said it’s working with the Red Cross. Yet members of the Red Cross working at the disaster zone questioned by ABC News weren’t aware of the Church’s assistance.
“We will stay in Minneapolis as long as help is needed,” said church spokeswoman Pouw.