The Cour de Cassation in Paris, France's highest appeals court, on Wednesday rejected an appeal by the Church of Scientology against several convictions for "organized fraud".
The Church had argued in a September 4th hearing that the verdicts constituted a violation of their religious liberty, but the court on Wednesday rejected that claim.
In 2009, convictions and fines of €400,000 and €200,000 ($812,000 in total) were handed down to the Church’s Celebrity Centre and a Scientology bookshop in the French capital.
Scientology leader in Paris, Alain Rosenburg and the Celebrity Centre's former president Sabine Jacquart were also found guilty of taking financial advantage of elderly members of the Church and sentenced to two-year suspended prison sentences as well as being handed €30,000 fines for organized fraud.
'We're being judged for our beliefs'
French scientologist minister Eric Roux on Wednesday told The Local the ruling was an example of France's "religious persecution" of the Church.
"France is really the most backwards country in Europe in terms of religious tolerance," he said. "We're being judged for our beliefs, not our behaviour. How can the Cours de Cassation decide that our beliefs are untrue or fraudulent, but not say the same thing about Protestants or Catholics?"
The charges resulted from accusations by Parisians that they had been pressured into handing over large sums of money to buy materials in the book shop and Celebrity Centre.
The Church’s unsuccessful appeal to the Cour de Cassation came a year after it failed to convince a lower court of appeal to overturn the original verdicts and sentences.
File photo of a French Scientology centre: Guirec Lefort/Flickr
An 'evil cult' in France, a religion in Spain
The Celebrity Centre had earlier rejected the charges as “totally false and inequitable”, according to French daily Direct Matin, complaining the trial had “numerous irregularities and in which the fundamental rights of scientologists were violated”.
Speaking during the hearing in September, lawyer Louis Boré denied that the Church had ever asked for money from its followers, but Roux told The Local on Wednesday that "anyone whose money we gave back dropped their complaint against us."
"That's how I know this is about our religious beliefs and not about a criminal case. Why else would the French government get involved and apply so much pressure in the case?"
The Church will now take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, Roux added. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The scientologist minister called for Europe-wide uniformity of laws regarding religious freedoms. "How can we be considered an evil cult in France, but a religion in Spain?"
Suicide after a negative personality test
This isn’t the first time the Church of Scientology has been touched by scandal in France.
In 1996, Jean-Jacques Mazier, leader of the Lyon branch of the Church, was sentenced to 18 months in jail for fraud and involuntary homicide after Church member Patrice Vic committed suicide after going into debt to pay for Scientology auditing sessions.
In 2008 Kaja Bordevich Ballo, a Norwegian student living in Nice, killed herself after receiving the results of a negative Scientology personality test. However, prosecutors failed to find a direct link between the test and the woman’s suicide.
While the Church is considered as a religion in the US where it was founded in 1954 by science-fiction author Ron Hubbard, it is classed as a “sect” in France, following a parliamentary report in 1995.
In France alone the Church of Scientology counts some 45,000 followers, and 10 million worldwide.