Acton Commentary

Courage and Conversion

Last month in St. Peter’s Basilica, in an Easter vigil mass broadcast throughout the world, Pope Benedict XVI received seven people into the Roman Catholic Church. Among them was journalist Magdi Allam.

Allam was born a Muslim in Egypt and has been an outspoken critic of Islamist terrorism as a writer for Italy’s leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. In the following day’s paper, he described the Vigil Mass as “the most beautiful day of my life…. In my first Easter as a Christian, I discovered not only Jesus, but I discovered for the first time the one true God, who is the God of Faith and Reason.”

After years of supporting a “moderate Islam”, Allam now recognizes that extremism and terrorism are “situated in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual.” He chides the Church “that until now has been excessively prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in Muslim majority countries, and remaining silent about the reality of converts in Christian countries.” There are, Allam says, “thousands of Muslim converts to Christianity who are forced to hide their new faith out of fear of being assassinated by Islamic extremists lurking among us.” Due to the threats made against him, Allam has been provided with security for the last five years; it will certainly need to be increased now.

Not surprisingly, Allam’s conversion has drawn criticism from many Islamic leaders.

Professor Aref Ali Nayed is the purported author of a letter signed by 138 Muslim leaders in response to the pope’s controversial Regensburg lecture. This letter was welcomed by many, including the Vatican, as a sign of engagement and dialogue. But Nayed has now attacked “the Vatican’s deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam on such a special occasion and in such a spectacular way.” He also accused the Catholic schools Allam attended in Egypt of proselytism, and Pope Benedict of “quasi-Manichean” and “Roman totalitarian discourse” for using images of darkness and light in his Easter homily. Nayed now questions “the motives, intentions, and plans of some of the Pope’s advisors on Islam” but wishes to continue the dialogue, with the first “Catholic-Muslim Forum” scheduled for this coming November in Rome.

Of course, not every Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter’s draws such attention from the international media. I was one of 10 catechumens received into the Church in 1996 by Pope John Paul II. Like Allam, the seeds of my conversion were planted in a Catholic school and especially by the religious sisters who educated me.

My Hindu parents attended Catholic and Christian schools in India and sent their children to the same in the United States. I was the only non-Christian in my entire school. I attended all the religion classes and weekly Masses, but I was never asked, let alone pressured, to convert, though this is a charge often made against Catholic schools worldwide. As with Allam, this experience not only taught me the fundamental beliefs of the Church but displayed the love and service lived by religious, priests, and laity at my schools. While I am sure all of them desired and would have welcomed my conversion, they knew the Church cannot force belief on anyone. I would have to come to my own decision, led by grace as well as the good example of others.

One year after my baptism, I started working for the Vatican, first at its mission to the United Nations in New York and then for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome. In those seven years, my job was to explain the Church’s faith and social doctrine to various groups, which happened to include a group of Iranian theologians visiting the Vatican in December 2004.

It was a meeting devoted to Catholic and Islamic understandings of truth, justice, charity and liberty, but I had the distinct impression that our Muslim counterparts were less interested in a serious discussion rather than the appearance of one.

While my contribution focused on St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings on justice, the Muslim scholar, who was much more educated than I, offered a few platitudes about the United Nations. I asked him about the rich tradition of medieval Islamic thought, from which Aquinas drew heavily; he simply nodded and asked if I could be more specific about what I meant by justice and religion in today’s world.

“No using God’s name to justify terrorism, and no persecution of converts from one religion to another,” was my short reply (which Pope John Paul II later reiterated at our meeting’s audience). From that moment on, my interlocutors became very interested in my family’s obviously South Asian background. I can only imagine how much stronger the reaction would have been if they were Muslim instead of Hindu.

None of this is to say that previously Hindu, Jewish, Protestant and atheistic converts do not face difficulties when they become Roman Catholic, or that Catholics aren’t disappointed to lose members of their own flock. But I wholeheartedly support Magdi Cristiano Allam in his call for the Church to encourage and welcome converts, so long as it is done with full respect for their reason and freedom. Spreading the Good News is, after all, central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict and Allam should be congratulated for the courage they have shown in the face of such serious threats. Let’s hope that others—within the Church, within Islam, and everywhere—will do the same.

Kishore Jayabalan is director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office.