LOS ANGELES -- The new Harry Potter movie heading in theaters this week has enflamed a small legion of conservative Christian critics who claim the boy wizard is a tool leading children to witchcraft and sin.
But as anticipation grows for ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' other Christians insist the stories are harmless fantasies about magic and morals.
''I'm so tired of people saying he's evil,'' says Connie Neal, a Christian author who has investigated the Potter claims. ''They're choosing to interpret the books in a very selective way.''
Neal -- a mother of three and author of ''What's a Christian to do with Harry Potter?'' -- characterized herself as a ''discreet fan.''
Yet other authors maintain reservations about the mysticism of Harry's world, in which magical people predict the future, change shapes and communicate with ghosts.
''Although the story is fictional, Harry Potter has real-world occult parallels,'' said Richard Abanes, author of ''Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick.''
''The books present astrology, numerology mediumship, crystal gazing,'' he said. ''Kids are enthralled with it. And kids like to copy.''
Abanes embarked on an eight-city tour to promote his book before the Nov. 16 U.S. release of the Potter film, which stars newcomer Daniel Radcliffe as the boy who learns on his 11th birthday he has magical powers.
''There's a real religious concern,'' observes Jana Riess of Publishers Weekly, who moderated an Abanes-Neal debate at a July convention of Christian retailers. ''Evangelical Christians believe that witchcraft is real.''
But, she said, witchcraft in the Potter novels ''is not a worldview in the way evangelicals would think of it.'' She likens the fuss to parallel complaints when ''The Wizard of Oz'' was published a century ago.
Scottish author J.K. Rowling calls the accusations ''absurd,'' saying Harry Potter's world is entirely imaginary.
''I have met thousands of children now, and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, 'Ms. Rowling, I'm so glad I've read these books because now I want to be a witch,''' the author has said.
Though more than 50 million copies are in print worldwide, there has been no evidence of widespread conversions to paganism or witchcraft.
Andy Norfolk of the London-based Pagan Federation, said the youth-aimed Potter books have created no serious interest in his movement because the don't appeal to older people seeking spiritual options who ''see them as rather uncool.''
Enemies of Pottermania abound, nonetheless.
The Potter books top the banned book listing for 2000, compiled by the American Library Association.
Some have called for the books to be banned from public school libraries, claiming stories about witches and wizards violate church-state separation. Others have staged book burnings or circulated phony reports that claim the novels inspired thousands of children to join satanic cults.
A Kansas library recently canceled a reading of the books due to complaints about magical content. Some children in Jacksonville, Fla., must now present parental permission slips to read the books at school libraries.
''Satan is up to his old tricks again and the main focus is the children of the world,'' wrote Jon Watkins, a Baptist activist. ''The whole purpose of these (Potter) books is to desensitize readers and introduce them to the occult.''
On the Web page of self-described Christian occult investigator David Bay, a drawing shows a boy reading a Potter book while sitting on the lap of a grotesque demon that gorily pierces his skull.
''Harry Potter conditions children to think of witchcraft as harmless and even fun. That way, when the real antichrist arrives on the scene, they will be preconditioned to accept him,'' Bay said.
Bay and Watkins also denounce Roman Catholicism, Mormonism and much of secular life as nests of evil conspiracies -- views outside the beliefs of most Christians.
Neal fears churchgoing parents will prejudge the books without reading them. She thinks most children won't be harmed so long as parents help them understand the difference between fantasy and reality.
Christians ''should use the help of God and our own common sense to do our best to be light in the world, not a laughing stock,'' she says.
On the Net:
''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' movie: http://www.harrypotter.com/
Connie Neal official site: http://www.connieneal.com/
Richard Abanes official site: http://www.abanes.com/
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