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Cardinal urges Catholics not to read 'Da Vinci Code'

Asserts novel filled with lies, prejudice

ROME -- After months of turning the other cheek, Vatican officials are lashing out against ''The Da Vinci Code," saying Catholics should not buy or even read the best-selling thriller.

In a series of radio and newspaper interviews here, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said that Dan Brown's novel was a paragon of ''anti-Catholic prejudice," and was filled with ''gross lies and manipulations" about church history in general and the role of Jesus in particular.

Bertone, the cardinal of Genoa and former head of the Vatican's powerful office on doctrinal orthodoxy, organized a conference last night in that city to debunk the novel.

''I'm really shocked that a book founded on so many errors and on numerous lies could have such success," said Bertone, who has been mentioned as a potential successor to the ailing Pope John Paul II, in the conference announcement.

On Tuesday, on Vatican radio, he added: ''I ask myself if a similar book was written full of lies about Buddha, Mohammed, or, even, for example, if a novel came out manipulating the history of the Holocaust or of the Shoah, what would have happened."

''The Da Vinci Code" is a fictional murder mystery in which the church and its affiliates go to great lengths -- including murder -- to cover up the supposed ''truth" about Jesus: that he was married to Mary Magdalene, with whom he had a child. Also, the book says, the real religion he espoused involved the worship of the female as a goddess and sexual rituals.

Brown and his publisher, Doubleday, have repeatedly emphasized that ''The Da Vinci Code" is a work of fiction, with fictional characters, that explores longstanding alternative theories about the birth of Christianity.

Doubleday did not return calls for comment, but on his website, Brown said: ''This book is not anti-anything. It is a novel. I wrote this story in an effort to explore certain aspects of Christian history that interest me."

It is extremely rare for high church officials to criticize a work of popular fiction, specialists said. But ''The Da Vinci Code," which has sold 25 million copies and been translated into 44 languages, has caused innumerable headaches for the Catholic Church. It will be made into a movie, starring Tom Hanks, next year.

In Paris, the Church of St. Sulpice -- scene of a particularly grisly murder committed by a devout monk in the novel -- has been deluged with ''Da Vinci Code" tourists. Church officials have had to put up signs explaining that the events in the book are fictional and that the book's reinterpretation of symbols found in the church is not accurate.

''So far, reaction has been fairly restrained among Catholic leaders, although that may change once people in the Vatican are speaking out," said Brian Finnerty, communications director for Opus Dei, a worldwide Catholic organization, whose fictional members are behind most of the murders in the book.

''Opus Dei is nothing like the portrayal in the book -- we don't have monks, albino or otherwise," Finnerty said. ''We stress the goal of finding God in ordinary life. But this is a novel, so complaining about errors is like boxing with a fog. People will say of course it's not true."

Starting in the 16th century, the Catholic Church compiled what it called the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books the church had effectively censored. In earlier centuries, when the church either owned or controlled most of Europe's printing presses, books on the list could not be published.

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