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The French chapter of the Church of Scientology has been convicted of fraud and fined nearly $1 million.  Its top members have also been handed suspended prison sentences.  The verdict by a French court stops short of dissolving the church, as the prosecution requested.

A Paris area court fined the Church of Scientology and its library nearly $900,000 on grounds it manipulated its members financially during the 1990s.  The court also delivered suspended prison sentences ranging from 10 months to two years to four of its leaders for fraud.  Two others were ordered to pay fines.

Investigators had accused the group of pressuring members into paying large sums of money for questionable financial gain and harassing potential members.

Despite the guilty verdict the court stopped short of following the prosecution's demands the church be dissolved in France.

A senior official with the Church of Scientology, Eric Roux, says the church will appeal the verdict, citing intense media and political pressure during the trial.  But he praised part of the court's decision.

"The court said that in France, Scientology should continue," Roux said. "And on that point they are very right.  This is the fair part of the verdict.  That would end any odd idea that the church should end in France.  Scientology is recognized everywhere in the world and France must step up to international standards.  That is good for the church."

The court's decision not to dissolve the church was in some ways a foregone conclusion, because of new legislation that bars French courts of dissolving groups on the basis of fraud.  But anti-sect organizations also claimed victory, even if the verdict did not go as far as they had hoped.

In a separate ruling earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights judged a Russian ban against church operations there was illegal.   

The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 in the United States, where it is officially recognized as a religion.  It claims a worldwide membership of about 12 million people, including 45,000 in France.