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Ukraine: Church Council Condemns Harry Potter Books As 'Occultism'

The series of children's books about Harry Potter, the trainee boy wizard endowed with magical powers, have sold millions of copies around the world and made their creator, Joanne -- or JK -- Rowling, one of Britain's richest women. Harry Potter's many fans, adults as well as children, say the books and film are innocent entertainment in the tradition of fairy tales and children's fantasy. But Harry has attracted his critics too, who detect something sinister behind the tales of sorcery, spells, and magical creatures. Now Christian clergy in western Ukraine have slammed them as "satanic propaganda."

Prague, 7 June 2002 ) -- In the best-selling books by British author JK Rowling, orphan schoolboy Harry Potter faces up to an evil wizard, a three-headed dog, an escaped convict, various magical beasts, and some bullying from his spoiled cousin Dudley.

His classes at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft include lessons in spells, magic potions, and games of "quidditch," a physically demanding sport played in mid-air by students on flying broomsticks.

In the real world, the books and film about the trainee wizard have had some fierce adversaries too.

Last year campaigners in a dozen countries urged Rowling to end Coca-Cola's use of Harry Potter imagery to market its soft drinks to children. A charity in the U.K. even branded the Potter books "fattist," saying the description of Harry's portly cousin Dudley has led to an increase in the bullying of overweight children.

But most often complaints about the books have come from religious Christians, particularly in the U.S., where parents have accused them of depicting evil and encouraging occultism. In the U.K., one church school banned its students from reading the books on religious grounds. And some churchgoers were upset that scenes from "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" were shot in Gloucester Cathedral.

Harry Potter has even sparked a literary cottage industry of his own, with advice books for agonized Christian parents such as "What's a Christian to do about Harry Potter?" and "Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magic."

Now, clergy in western Ukraine have weighed in with their own criticisms, branding the books and the film "satanic propaganda."

The Inter-Church Council in Rivne made the statement after a meeting last month. The clergymen called the film, which opened that week in the city, "an instruction in occultism" and "a manual for Satanism" and put it in the same category as the bogus faith healers they say are invading the region. Ilya Korneichuk of the local Baptists community explained: "The thing is that in the fragments of the film [we've seen] there are some comedy scenes such as witches flying about and other things. Our inter-confessional council came to the conclusion to recommend our city authorities ban the film because there are certain elements or displays of occultism. This is the only reason, the displays of occultism in this film."

Rowling's publicist, Nicky Stonehill, says her client does not comment on any of the religious-based criticisms leveled at her creation. So RFE/RL turned instead to some experts on children's literature. They say similar elements -- witches, broomsticks, wizards, dragons, and so on -- have been in children's fairy tales from time immemorial. And they note that the books are ultimately about good triumphing over evil.

One praised the influence of the Potter books as giving new life to the market for all children's books. And children who were not big readers before Harry Potter are now going on to more complex stories, once they find they can easily devour a 400-page Harry Potter tome.

Ann Lazim is the British chair of the International Board on Books for Young People, and the librarian at London's Centre for Language in Primary (ages 4-11) Education. She isn't so sure about the Potter literacy effect. She says some kids just re-read the Potter books over and over.

But she says they are on her center's recommended reading list for schools and that there is nothing harmful in them. In a way, she says they have become a victim of their own success: "I don't think there's anything in particular about Harry Potter [that's not in other fantasy books], it's just that those books are so popular that people pick on them and they're more widely translated because of that."

Lazim says she believes the Potter books have been so successful because they cross different genres, such as the "boarding school story," which has a long tradition in the U.K. "It's a school story and a fantasy story. Often the whole thing about the child being alone in the world -- [you] know, he's got a lot of friends to help him but what I mean is his parents are not there -- that often happens in a lot of children's books. So I think it's a combination of all those things together in one book really."

Rowling's own rags-to-riches story famously reads as if it were fiction. In the early 1990s, after an unsuccessful marriage in Portugal, she returned with her baby daughter to Britain. With no job and often turning to friends to borrow money, Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in cafes while her baby slept. She has since spoken of the humiliation of being a poor single parent and has lashed out at what she sees as the unfair stereotyping of single mothers in Britain as "feckless teenagers" and welfare spongers.

No such worries for her now. Her agency, Christopher Little, says the books have sold 163 million copies worldwide and been translated into 53 languages, including Bulgarian, Czech, Polish, Russian, and -- as of two months ago -- Ukrainian.

By his own admission Kurneichuk hasn't read any of the books or seen the entire film. And he's realistic that others don't share his opinion, but he says he and his brethren felt they had to speak their minds. "We came out against it, but not everyone agrees. We have done what we've done. We said at a press conference that films like this should not be shown in our Christian country. They don't create, they destroy. But we can't ban it, we just had our say."

Korneichuk said many of the city's Christian denominations supported the protest. But the Catholics have been more cautious. One, identified as Father Georgii, was quoted in the "Rivne vechirne" newspaper as saying he'd prefer to see the film before passing judgment: "A commission in Poland who went to see the film said there was some wizardry there but no more than, say, the tales of [Hans Christian] Andersen," he said. In any case, he added, "Our society isn't Christian enough to even follow the advice of the church."

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report)