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Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

-- AFP/Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI baptized Magdi Allam at the Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 22.
Baptism sparks new pope-Islam upset


Rarely does an Easter Vigil become a news event, but this year’s Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica got the world’s attention. The reason: One of seven new Catholics personally baptized by Pope Benedict XVI was a high-profile Muslim, an Egyptian-born Italian journalist widely regarded as the successor to Oriana Fallaci in terms of visceral protest against Muslim extremism.

Magdi Allam, 55, formerly a self-described “secular Muslim,” had long expressed affinity for Catholicism. He’s a star attraction, for example, at the annual Communion and Liberation meeting in Rimini, Italy. In itself, Allam’s conversion thus came as no great surprise. The fact that Benedict baptized and confirmed Allam personally in such a high-profile setting, however, was taken in some quarters as a provocation.

Allam added fuel to the fire with an Easter Sunday letter to the editor of his own newspaper, Corriere della Sera. Among other things, Allam charged that deeper than the current wave of fundamentalist-inspired terrorism, Islam itself contains “the root of evil” because it is “physiologically violent and historically prone to conflict.”

All this was bound to produce blowback, and it wasn’t long in coming.

Few questioned Allam’s right to convert, but Muslim leaders chafed at the public spotlight afforded by the pope. Aref ali Nayed, for example, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, Jordan, suggested that the affair “provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope’s advisers on Islam.” A piece on a Hamas-owned Web site by Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh objected to the “purposefully high profile the Vatican gave this conversion,” adding that “the problem lies in the vindictive atmosphere, including anti-Islamic allusions and insinuations.”

Critical notes were also heard from the Catholic world. Italian Catholic journalist Aldo Maria Valli published a letter that he said came from a priest “working on the frontier with Islam,” charging that the Allam baptism “repeats the error of Regensburg” -- a reference to the global controversy prompted by Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 12, 2006, lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, where he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad brought things “only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Stung by such protest, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published a commentary on Tuesday by editor Gian Maria Vian insisting that there had been no “hostile intent,” and stressing the importance of religious freedom. Vian also asserted that Benedict XVI is committed to dialogue with Islam.

Be that as it may, it’s tough to believe anyone at the Vatican was actually surprised by the reaction. For one thing, Allam sometimes comes off as deliberately incendiary; he recently expressed the hope, for example, that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be captured by the Israelis and forced to live at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. For another, the Vatican is obviously aware, post-Regensburg, of keen sensitivity in the Islamic world to perceived papal slights.

Given those realities, why did Benedict do it? At least three possible reasons come to mind:

  • For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, receiving a high-profile convert during the Easter Vigil is a symbolic way of making the point. In effect, Benedict is saying that the church shouldn’t shrink from receiving anyone who knocks on its door, even if there’s a political price to be paid.
  • Allam’s baptism can also be read as a statement of solidarity with Muslim converts to Christianity around the world, many of whom suffer in various ways on account of that decision.
  • Finally, the episode illustrates an important facet of Benedict’s personality -- stubborn indifference to the canons of political correctness. Benedict is a gracious figure, but he also refuses to sanitize what he regards as important matters of belief or practice in order to avoid public relations headaches. Whether that amounts to moral courage or tone-deafness to public reaction is a matter of opinion, but the pattern is clear.

Allam himself confirmed the first two interpretations in his letter to Corriere della Sera, describing Benedict’s act as a “courageous and historical gesture” as well as an “explicit and revolutionary message” that Christians “should not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus, even among Muslims.” He said that Benedict never hesitated to baptize him, “from the first instant in which he learned of my desire.”

All this notwithstanding, Vian’s argument in L’Osservatore Romano is convincing on at least one point: Benedict XVI does genuinely seem to want dialogue with Islam, in a way that distinguishes his position from true anti-Islamic hawks (including, perhaps, Allam himself, at his most acerbic). Benedict went out of his way to meet with Islamic leaders in Cologne, Germany, during his first foreign trip, and he conducted a successful fence-mending exercise with Muslims during his November 2006 trip to Turkey, including a moment of silent prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. He will sit down again with Muslims, along with leaders of other religions, during his April visit to the United States; and plans were recently finalized for a November meeting between the pope and signatories to a letter from 138 Muslim leaders proposing theological common ground between Christianity and Islam.

In other words, at precisely the same time that Benedict is challenging Muslims on religious freedom and the relationship between faith and reason, he’s also determined to build relationships.

How does the pope reconcile those two impulses? Simple: In Benedict’s worldview, the deepest threat today is not Islam, it’s the “dictatorship of relativism,” meaning secularism and moral and philosophical relativism in the West. In that struggle, Benedict believes a reformed, moderate Islam ought to be Christianity’s natural ally. His efforts to stimulate such a reform, and his outstretched hand in dialogue, are, by that logic, perfectly consistent.

To date, the evidence is mixed as to whether Muslims actually experience what the pope is saying and doing in quite that spirit. Benedict’s interreligious session in the States, as well as his November encounter with Islamic leaders in Rome, afford him new opportunities to make the case.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

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