A Muslim scholar involved in high-level dialogue with the Vatican has denounced the Pope’s baptism on Saturday of a prominent Italian Muslim convert.
Aref Ali Nayed, the head of Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre, called the baptism of journalist Magdi Allam a deliberate and provocative act.
The Vatican has not yet commented, but its official newspaper said the gesture aimed to promote religious freedom.
The Pope traditionally baptises adult converts to Catholicism on Easter eve.
Mr Allam’s invitation to the ceremony, which took place in St Peter’s Basilica, was however kept secret by the Vatican, until just before the Easter vigil mass.
The Egyptian-born Italian TV and newspaper commentator has been an outspoken critic of Islamist militancy and a strong supporter of Israel.
He says such controversial views and his conversion to Christianity have provoked threats on his life, and he is now protected by a police escort.
In a stinging rebuke of Saturday’s televised ceremony, Mr Nayed denounced what he called “the Vatican’s deliberate and provocative act of baptising Allam on such a special occasion and in such a spectacular way”.
“It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points,” he said in a written statement.
Mr Nayed said Pope Benedict XVI’s actions came “at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities”.
The Jordanian scholar has been at the forefront of an initiative gathering more than 130 Muslim scholars who recently wrote to the Pope and other Christian leaders calling for greater dialogue and good will between Muslims and Christians.
The Vatican has also been keen to repair relations with moderate Muslims, particularly after the crisis caused by a speech the Pope gave in Germany in 2006, in which he appeared to associate Islam with violence.
But Mr Nayed added that despite the Vatican’s actions, the initiative for dialogue to improve relations would continue.
“Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of ‘reciprocity’ but a compassionate theology of mending,” he wrote.
The Vatican has not yet commented on the criticism, but its official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano on Tuesday denied that the ceremony had been intentionally inflammatory, noting that it had not been publicised in advance.
The newspaper wrote that the baptism had been a papal “gesture” without hostile intentions aimed at stressing “in a gentle and clear way, religious freedom”.