"Church puts faith in Harry Potter"
by Phil Miller ("Sunday Times," September 2, 2001)
HARRY POTTER, the teenage wizard who is already a hero to millions of children, has received an even higher commendation after being deified by a Catholic church in America.
The St Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Syracuse, New York state, is running classes comparing Potter - the creation of Edinburgh-based writer J K Rowling - with Jesus Christ.
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Teachers dress up as characters from the books and part of the church has been converted to a replica of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Potter is a pupil.
During the lessons the baptism of Christ is compared to Harry's "calling" to be a wizard where he overcomes the evil Lord Voldemort.
Children aged 10 to 12 are taught how Christians are redeemed by Christ, just as Harry is quick to forgive his friend Ron and his teacher Dumbledore when they argue.
The classes also say that the non-magical Muggles in the Potter books can be compared to the disciple Doubting Thomas.
"It is very easy to compare Jesus and Harry Potter," said Madeline Loiacano, the church's co-director and religious education teacher. "Harry is compassionate, he's not judgmental, he's self-sacrificing to the point of being willing to die for his friends, he focuses on the good in people, even when people are not nice to him.
"There are people who are against the books but they are no worse than the stories of Camelot, Merlin and King Arthur.
"How many kids do you know who are excited about going to school to hear about scripture? Harry Potter is popular. It's hot. I'd use what's of interest to the children to get the message across."
Religious groups in America have campaigned against the Potter books. The Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) claims that the books encourage witchcraft and promote homosexuality and abortion. It is so worried about Harry Potter that it has produced a video explaining the dangers of children being exposed to the books.
It warns: "The original witch was undoubtedly a black, bisexual warrior."
American parents who branded the works as evil have succeeded in having them banned from school libraries in some southern states. However, Father John Wagner, priest at the St Elizabeth Ann Seton church, was congratulated by his superiors at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse for the lessons.
"With this approach you are teaching the children about religion and they don't even realise until it's all over," he said.
To take part, pupils must first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first book in the Potter series. One lesson compares the now-famous lightning scar on Harry's head to the crucifixion marks of Christ.
It describes how, in the book, Harry was saved from Voldemort by his mother's love. It then says: "Discuss how as Christians we defeat death by love and by Jesus's self- sacrifice we are freed from darkness and evil."
Other darker characters from the Potter books are explored in the lessons. Voldemort is described by the church as "evil and disgusting".
However, the teacher is instructed to ask: "Was Voldemort created in God's image? What caused him to look so different?"
More than 1,000 children who took part in the lessons responded so positively that they are to be repeated.
"I thought it was the most creative teaching programme that I have seen," said Wagner. "Some people are concerned with such images and imagination, but even in Revelation there are images of dragons, of monsters with many heads."