The Pope has risked a renewed rift with the Islamic world by baptising a Muslim journalist who describes Islam as intrinsically violent and characterised by “hate and intolerance”.
In a surprise move at the Easter vigil at St Peter’s, Pope Benedict XVI baptised Magdi Allam, 55, an outspoken Egyptian-born critic of Islamic extremism and supporter of Israel. He has been under police protection for five years after receiving death threats over his criticism of suicide-bombings.
Religious freedom has been the theme of this year’s Easter celebrations. The meditations for the Good Friday Via Crucis procession at the Colosseum were written by Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Archbishop of Hong Kong, who drew attention to the suffering of persecuted Christian “martyrs” around the world.
Mr Allam’s conversion was kept secret until less than an hour before the service on Saturday evening. He took the middle name “Christian” for his baptism.
The move revived memories of the fury that greeted Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg University in 2006 in which he appeared to brand Islam as inherently violent by quoting a Byzantine emperor.
He had since sought to make amends, praying in a mosque in Turkey and establishing a forum for Roman Catholic-Muslim dialogue to be inaugurated in November. His talks last November with King Abdullah in Rome have led to talks on opening a church in Saudi Arabia, where all non-Islamic faiths are banned.
In an article for Corriere della Sera, the Italian newspaper of which he is a deputy editor, Mr Allam, who has lived in Italy most of his adult life and has a Catholic wife, said that his soul had been “liberated from the obscurantism of an ideology which legitimises lies and dissimulation, violent death, which induces both murder and suicide, and blind submission to tyranny”. Instead he had “seen the light” and joined “the authentic religion of Truth, Life and Liberty”.
He added: “I had to do this. Beyond extremists and Islamist terrorism at the global level, the root of evil is inherent in a physiologically violent and historically conflictual Islam.” Mr Allam, who was educated at a Salesian Catholic school and previously described himself as a “not very devout” Muslim, was one of seven adults baptised during the Easter vigil, traditionally used for adult conversion ceremonies.
He said that by baptising him publicly the Pope had “sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too cautious in the conversion of Muslims”. He added: “Thousands of people in Italy have converted to Islam and practise their faith serenely. But there are also thousands of Muslims who have converted to Christianity but are forced to hide out of fear of being killed by Islamist terrorists.”
Last week the Vatican dismissed as “baseless” a charge by Osama bin Laden that the Pope was playing a leading role in a “new Crusade” against Islam. Muslim groups in Italy said that Mr Allam would have done better with a low-key conversion at a local parish.Yesterday the Pope celebrated Easter Mass from under a canopy in torrential rain on St Peter’s Square, calling for an end to “injustice, hatred and violence”. He also called for “solutions that will safeguard peace and the common good” in Tibet, the Middle East and African regions.
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