NEW YORK, May 30 (AP)-- The adolescent hero of J.K. Rowling's series rides a broom, owns an Invisibility Cloak and magic wand and has cast a spell over young readers the world over.

He's got modern-day witches enchanted, too.

"For once, the witches aren't ugly old hags,'' said Michael Darnell, a 39-year-old computer programmer from Winnipeg, Canada, who has been a practicing witch for 25 years. "For once they're the protagonists rather than the villains."

Darnell is one of the thousands of North American adherents of Wicca, a faith linked to witchcraft. No one knows how many people practice Wicca, but estimates run from 300,000 to more than 1.5 million people following what they describe as a nature-based belief system that existed in Europe before Christianity.

However, witchcraft has always had a darker image in popular culture, often linked to devil worship and decried by some Christians as an affront to God. From Shakespeare to Salem, witches have usually been portrayed as evil, curse-casting troublemakers.

Not in Harry's case. He and his friends go to school to learn witchcraft and have all kinds of magical adventures along the way. In his world, the non-witches are the weird ones - a welcome change for witchcraft practitioners.

"If somebody wants to write about us as being fun, interesting, magical people, we don't mind that at all,'' said Jane Raeburn, 35, a writer in Wells, Maine, who has been practicing Wicca for 10 years.

The Potter books - the fourth volume is scheduled for release July 8 - don't actually deal with the philosophical precepts of Wicca or any specific religious tradition.

Instead, Harry and company fight the good fight against the forces of evil aided by the stereotypical pop culture notions of witchery - flying brooms, magical instruments, spells.

That in itself has been enough to concern some Christian parents. Last year, the series topped the list of books that parents or certain groups tried to have taken off shelves, according to the American Library Association. The books were removed in some schools after parents raised concerns that the series was promoting witchcraft.

Modern-day witches find that laughable.

"They don't have anything to do with Wicca,'' said Patricia Allgeier, 57, a witch in Springfield, Mo. "It's this generation's version of 'The Wizard of Oz."

That's not to say witches don't have any concerns about the books. Anything that promotes stereotypes, even positively, can make it harder for Wiccans to deal with non-Wiccans.

"It portrays witches in positive ways ... but it does not portray my religious beliefs," said Chad Anctil of the Witches' League for Public Awareness.

A big admirer of the Harry Potter books, Anctil loves the writing and the entertaining stories. But he said "it is difficult for the religion to be taken seriously when books like this portray it as magic."

The common thread that draws witches and non-witches to the book is its engaging storytelling, which explores the difficulties of growing up and has kids dealing with issues of right and wrong - and standing up for what they believe.

"What you're talking about are the choices people make," said Christina Aubin, parenting coordinator for the Clearwater, Fla.-based Web site, The Witches' Voice. Her 10-year-old daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan.

"It teaches her to think for herself," Aubin said. "I don't think that's a bad idea."

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