Burning A Bridge Between Faiths

Muslim’s Baptism Creates a Furor;

Vatican Retreats

ROME — For nearly a decade, Magdi Allam provided a charismatic voice for moderate Islam. Urging fellow Muslims to denounce terrorism and recognize the state of Israel, he was hailed as a bridge between faiths.

On the night before Easter, the Cairo, Egypt-born editorial writer for an Italian newspaper burned his bridge down. He bowed his head before Pope Benedict XVI, renounced Satan and declared himself a Christian.

The papal baptism of commentator Magdi Allam, who converted to Christianity from Islam, is seen by some as undermining efforts in the West to find and nurture Muslims willing to denounce terrorism.

The baptism, which featured the sprinkling of holy water on Mr. Allam’s head, has unleashed a torrent of ill will.

The ceremony this past Saturday in St. Peter’s Basilica was broadcast on television around the world and stirred fury in Muslim lands. It also enraged some of the change-minded Muslims here in Italy whom Mr. Allam had rallied to his now-abandoned faith.

He has taken a new name — Magdi Cristiano Allam — and spent his first days as a Christian denouncing Islam as inherently violent. The Vatican has been scrambling to distance itself from the postbaptism, anti-Islamic fire.

The Holy See’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, on Thursday said Mr. Allam’s comments about Islam “remain his personal opinions without in any way becoming the official expression of the positions of the pope or of the Holy See.”

Mr. Allam makes no apologies. He says his conversion has “liberated” him from “darkness” and allowed him to see Islam more clearly. The former moderate Muslim relishes his new role as a Christian zealot.

“I realized that Islam is not compatible with core values such as respect for life and freedom of choice,” said Mr. Allam in an interview this week in Rome. As he spoke, a trio of bodyguards provided by the Italian state hovered nearby.

The anger triggered by Mr. Allam’s conversion has undermined the mission by some in the West since the 9/11 attacks to find and nurture Muslims willing to denounce terrorism. In the U.S. and Europe, governments and civic groups have sought to defuse fears of a “clash of civilizations” by grooming so-called moderate Muslims.

Their task hasn’t been easy.

“I would use the term moderate more for the weather than Islam,” said Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former member of the Dutch Parliament who has renounced Islam. Many devout Muslims dislike the term moderate, too, saying it suggests deviation from the tenets of the Quran.

Mr. Allam’s decision to enter the Catholic Church has infuriated people across the Muslim world, including some of those with whom Pope Benedict had been trying to form an alliance.

Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, called Mr. Allam’s baptism a “triumphalist tool for scoring points.” Mr. Nayed was among a group of prominent Muslim scholars who took part in recent meetings with Vatican officials to promote trust between faiths.

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican publication, tried to calm Muslim anger, writing, “There are no hostile intentions toward a great religion like Islam.”

Over the centuries, hostility has been the defining feature of Christian-Muslim relations. The two faiths have competed violently for souls.

Islam enjoyed huge growth immediately after the founding of the faith by Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632. But Christianity pushed back. The crusades threatened Muslim control of the Holy Land. Spain still celebrates the retreat of Islam from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century.

More recently, as Muslim populations in Europe have swelled, some Christians have reached out to those whom they see as moderate Muslims.

Mr. Allam was an exemplar of the type of Muslim that Westerners like to do business with. In his columns in Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera, and on television talk shows, he repeatedly spoke of the need for Muslims to repudiate violence. Though he wasn’t religiously observant and had become an Italian citizen, he still identified himself as a Muslim and recruited others to his belief that Islam could co-exist with modern, Western values.

He is perhaps best-known for promoting a manifesto renouncing terrorism that was signed by 30 prominent Muslims in Italy.

Born in Cairo to a family of modest means, he was educated in a Catholic school run by Italian nuns but says he was “bathed in anti-Israel ideology” after the 1967 Arab-Israel war. He came to Italy in 1972 on a scholarship and soon fell in with the radical left. He embraced the Palestinian cause.

But Mr. Allam gradually began to shed his left-wing credentials. He became a supporter of Israel, publishing a book called “Viva Israel.”

The more he embraced moderation and spoke out against extremist elements of Islam, the more his stature grew, both in Italy and abroad.

Last year, the American Jewish Committee gave him its annual “Mass Media Award,” saluting his “fearless courage and soaring eloquence.” The Jewish group had earlier honored Ms. Hirsi Ali, the former Dutch-parliament member.

At the same time, Mr. Allam became the target of invective and threats from Muslim quarters both in and outside of Italy. Five years ago, Italy’s Interior Ministry assigned him an armed escort.

Even after his conversion, he says, “I’m proud to be one of the people in Italy who fought for a moderate Islam.”

But now, some of the Muslims he recruited for his campaigns feel the sting of betrayal.

Yahya Sergio Pallavicini, a prominent Italian Muslim preacher who joined Mr. Allam on several occasions to renounce extremism, says he is troubled by his friend’s latest transformation.

“One day he’s saying that moderate Islam exists, the next day he’s saying the whole religion is violent,” says Mr. Pallavicini. “Is he suggesting that the only choice for Muslims who renounce terrorism is to be baptized by the pope next Easter?”