Auckland shop owners have been "deceived" into handing out tens of thousands of Scientology booklets, after agreeing to display them under the impression they were official COVID-19 pamphlets from the Government.
The 'Stay Well' booklets - which share the distinctive yellow and white colour scheme of the Ministry of Health's official COVID-19 messaging - were distributed at shops around central Auckland by Church of Scientology volunteers last week.
The information included in the booklets appears to be based on COVID-19 advice from the US government, rather than official Ministry of Health guidelines.
It also includes a QR code that links to a webpage featuring an online course called 'Solutions for a Dangerous Environment'. The course's synopsis promises that Scientology can "help relieve the mental anguish" of isolation brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
As many as 50,000 booklets have been distributed in Auckland, the Church of Scientology told Newshub.
Vodafone Queen Street, one of the stores that mistakenly made the booklets available, told Newshub it's "dismayed that an organisation would attempt to deceive New Zealanders in such a manner".
"[They] appeared to be official Government booklets with factual information on COVID-19, however they contained a QR code directing readers to a website advertising Scientology," a spokesperson said.
"As soon as retail staff realised, the booklets were immediately removed and we are investigating how this breach occurred."
Red Cross Dominion Rd, which also removed the booklets after a customer notified them that they included links to the Church of Scientology, said staff working when volunteers came in were under the impression they were St John's staff.
However the Church of Scientology says it's unsure how shops were unaware that the booklets were from them, as the back covers of the booklets and the volunteers' jackets featured thei organisation's name.
Noel Leeming and the Mexican Cafe in Auckland's CBD also displayed the booklets over the weekend, and it's understood many others on Queen St made them available. One source told Newshub they're still on display in many stores on Auckland's busiest shopping strip.
Similiarities to official COVID-19 messaging 'pure coincidence'
The Church of Scientology says its booklets' likeness with the Government's official COVID-19 messaging is "pure coincidence".
"Our volunteer ministers have for decades been well-known for their distinctive yellow colour since long before the COVID-19 outbreak," the church's community relations manager Allison Axford told Newshub.
"Our Stay Well booklets were first printed in March, prior to the NZ COVID-19 website. Our Stay Well Prevention Resource Center also went online in March.
"Any similarity is pure coincidence."
In a statement to Newshub, Axford said the the booklets are intended to simply "help inform everybody", rather than a ploy to recruit new members.
"As an organisation that cares deeply for the health of communities, we felt it important we played a supportive role at this time. The materials include an informative booklet, 50,000 copies of which have been distributed in Auckland.
"We have a thriving congregation in the city, but more importantly we feel it critical to help inform everybody at this time."
Axford did not respond to Newshub enquiries about why the booklets linked to a course on the Church of Scientology's website, rather than official Government information, if it were worried only about the health of Kiwis during COVID-19.
A Church of Scientology NZ press release says its health efforts during the pandemic has meant not a single member of the church worldwide has contracted the disease.
"[This] is a testament to our strict and diligent protocols in providing both information and implementation of the most aggressive antiviral sanitisation methods available."
'Always check': How the Ministry of Health responded
A Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newshub there's "no problem" with an organisation such as the Church of Scientology choosing to share general hygiene advice.
It says the booklets appear to be created and shared globally, and are not specific to New Zealand.
However it encouraged Kiwis wanting health and hygiene advice in relation to COVID-19 to head to government websites, rather than relying on other sources.
"The Ministry encourages the public to always check the source of any information or advice related to health," it said. "As always, the best place to get information related to health, well-being and COVID-19 is health.govt.nz as well as covid19.govt.nz."
Scientology booklets part of worldwide scheme
The 50,000 booklets distributed in Auckland make up just 1 percent of the estimated 5 million booklets the Church of Scientology has distributed across the world - each of them linking to the Church of Scientology's website.
In Australia, the booklets caused a major stir after volunteers placed the booklets throughout a Sydney mall, causing backlash from the Australian Medical Association (AMA).
Retailers at Chatswood shopping centre told 7 News they, like shop owners in New Zealand, believed the booklets were "from the government".
"It is frustrating for us to see this information and misinformation being spread to consumers at a time when people are feeling panicked anyway," Dr Danielle McMullen, AMA New South Wales President, told 7 News.
"Don't take health advice from the Church of Scientology, rely on doctors and the Health Department."
There are claims the global church is using a public relations strategy known as 'safe-pointing' - aligning oneself with trusted organisations such as governments and health ministries - in an attempt to distance itself from allegations it's a sinister cult.