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Websites associated with the Church of Scientology are intermittently unavailable today after an internet group calling itself Anonymous declared war on the controversial organisation.

In a statement posted via video on YouTube and through various internet sites Anonymous claimed its actions were designed to safeguard the right to freedom of speech against assaults by the Church of Scientology. It also wants to curtail what it claims is the financial exploitation of church members and aims to "systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology" in its present form.

Anonymous justifys its actions by alleging the Church of Scientology has misused copyright and trademark law in censoring criticism against the church. The campaign was sparked off by the church's attempts to remove a promotional video featuring Scientologist Tom Cruise from YouTube. The clip features a video from Cruise's Freedom Medal ceremony from late 2004 in which the actor speaks with (frankly scary) intensity about the responsibilities of being a Scientologist.

After the Church of Scientology lodged a copyright infringement complaint YouTube pulled the video, but the material has since resurfaced on Gawker.com which has stated it will not remove the video.

Anonymous has a broader agenda beyond attacking Church of Scientology web sites. As well as directing sympathisers to download and use denial of service software, the group calls on its members to make nuisance calls, host Scientology documents the Church claims as protected by copyright, and fax black pages to the Church's fax machines in an effort to waste ink.

The Church of Scientology has a long history of conflict with Internet groups. Back in 1995, for example, lawyers acting for the Church of Scientology attempted to get the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup pulled from Usenet. The bid backfired, instead serving to increase the popularity of the a.r.s. newsgroup and leading to a declaration of war by noted hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow - a conflict that became known as "Scientology versus the Internet".

Although the Church is known for playing hardball with critics, long-standing Scientology critics have decried Anonymous's tactics.

Andreas Heldal-Lund, the founder of Operation Clambake, a non-profit organisation critical of Scientology, said that it was hypocritical to uphold freedom of speech while denying it to the Church itself.

"Attacking Scientology like that will just make them play the religious persecution card. They will use it to defend their own counter-actions when they try to shatter criticism and crush critics without mercy," he said.

"Freedom of speech means we need to allow all to speak - including those we strongly disagree with. I am of the opinion that the Church of Scientology is a criminal organisation and a cult which is designed by its delusional founder to abuse people. I am still committed to fight for their right to speak their opinion," he added. ®

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