The controversial Church of Scientology said to be home to Hollywood A-listers like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and allegedly Will Smith has been on a building binge since the organization announced its plan to shower the world with "Ideal Churches of Scientology." In addition to raising beams in major urban areas in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, the L. Ron Hubbard-founded faith has its sights set on historic Harlem in New York City.
The New York Daily News reports that the Church of Scientology is building a chapel and community center along East 125th Street in the northern Manhattan neighborhood that birthed the Harlem Renaissance and is home to the historic Apollo Theater.
According to the report, the Scientology building will house a 200-seat prayer room, a cafe and 12 classrooms. The chapel is reportedly near completion while the community center next door remains under construction. The new facility was slated for a 2014 opening and will offer East Harlem residents self-help classes and tutoring for school children.
"We are creating a new renaissance in Harlem. The people in Harlem are looking for ways to further educate themselves," Phil Hargrow, executive director of the Church of Scientology and Community Center of Harlem, told the publication.
The Daily News report suggests that the organization founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the mid-50s was hoping to attract recruits unfamiliar with its controversial practices, some of which were most recently highlighted by actress Leah Remini's very public departure.
However, East Harlem residents appeared torn over having a Scientology chapel and community center in the neighborhood.
"I am definitely not coming here. This is crazy," Bruce Vizueta, 23, said. "That's not for us. It shouldn't be in Harlem."
Noemi Belis, 27, was more optimistic. "It's great. Take a look at our neighborhood. . . . I think Harlem can use some help," she said.
The Church of Scientology has long had offices in mid-town Manhattan, but the new chapel and community center in the predominantly black and Hispanic community are part of the nonprofit group's Ideal Organization strategy and push to expand worldwide.
"Mr. (David) Miscavige is the driving force of a movement now spanning the globe with Ideal Churches of Scientology," reads a statement on the Scientology News site. "He set the direction for the acquisition, design and planning of new churches and in consequence, the horizons of Scientology are filled with scores of new churches in the making for the second decade of the century."
Thirteen U.S. cities and nearly two dozen others in Africa, Canada, Latin America, Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Asia were on the organization's list of locations for new properties that have either been erected or were under construction.
So far, the Church of Scientology has been welcomed in its new locations in the U.S. At the dedication of the Church of Scientology of Denver last summer, Miscavige, ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion, was joined and endorsed by local community leaders, a city council member and the city's police chief.
The Church of Scientology, which claims more than 11,000 churches, missions and affiliated groups in 167 countries, has been described as a cult by former members, although representatives insist their work is aimed at "true spiritual enlightenment and freedom for the individual."
The Christian Post, as part of a multi-part series on cults, produced an in-depth report in 2011 on the Church of Scientology titled "Cults in Culture: Scientology – A Fictional Route to Happiness," which provides more background on the controversial religion.