ROME (CNS) — The Muslim-born journalist baptized by Pope Benedict XVI at the Easter Vigil said he wanted a public conversion to convince other former Muslims not to be afraid of practicing their new Christian faith.
But a representative of a group of Muslim scholars who recently launched a new dialogue with the Vatican said the prominence given to the baptism of Magdi Allam, a frequent critic of Islam, raises disturbing questions.
Allam, 55, was one of seven adults baptized by the pope March 22 in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for the 138 Muslim scholars who initiated the Common Word dialogue project last October and who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with the Vatican in early March, said conversion is a private matter, but the very public way in which Allam was baptized appeared “deliberate and provocative.”
In a March 25 interview with Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper, Allam said thousands of Italian Christians have converted to Islam with no repercussions.
“On the other hand, if a Muslim converts it is the end of the world and he is condemned to death for apostasy. In Italy there are thousands of converts who live their faith in secret for fear they will not be protected,” Allam said.
“I publicly converted to say to these people: ‘Come out of the catacombs, live your faith openly. Do not be afraid,’” he said.
In a March 23 article in Corriere della Sera, the newspaper for which he writes, Allam said, “His Holiness has launched an explicit and revolutionary message to a church that, up to now, has been too prudent in converting Muslims.”
He said Catholics were “abstaining from proselytism in countries with a Muslim majority and being silent about the reality of converts in Christian countries out of fear — the fear of not being able to protect the converts in the face of their condemnations to death for apostasy and for fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries.”
“Well, with his witness today, Benedict XVI tells us we need to conquer our fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even to Muslims,” Allam wrote in Corriere.
Allam told Il Giornale that although his mother was a devout Muslim she sent him to Catholic preschool, elementary and high schools. In the Corriere article, he said he even had gone to Communion once, which demonstrates how he had been attracted to the church for a long time.
He told Il Giornale his mother later regretted sending him to Catholic schools “because I never shared a certain zeal in practicing Islam; I always had a lot of autonomy. And, so, I became aware that Catholicism corresponded perfectly to the values that I held.”
Allam also said his Easter baptism marked a total and definitive turning from “a past in which I imagined that there could be a moderate Islam.”
He said Islamic “extremism feeds on a substantial ambiguity found in the Quran and in the concrete actions of Mohammed.”
While he moved definitively away from Islam five years ago, Allam said it was Pope Benedict’s teaching that convinced him to become a Catholic.
“He has said the basis for accepting a religion as true is how it accepts the basic rights of the person, the sacredness of life, freedom, choice (and) equality between men and women,” Allam said.
In a written statement reacting to Allam’s baptism by the pope at the globally televised Easter Vigil, Nayed said, “It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points.”
In addition, he said, “It is sad that the particular person chosen for such a highly public gesture has a history of generating, and continues to generate, hateful discourse.”
Nayed said it would be important for Pope Benedict and the Vatican to distance themselves from Allam’s stance on Islam.
“The whole spectacle with its choreography, persona and messages provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope’s advisers on Islam,” he said, adding that the Muslim scholars would continue their dialogue with the Vatican.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told the Italian news agency ApCom March 23 that he did not know how Allam came to be among the people baptized by the pope at the Easter Vigil “or who promoted it.”
However, he said, freedom of conscience is a basic right and “to whomever knocks the door of the church is always open.”