VATICAN CITY (AP) — A Muslim scholar who participated in recent Vatican talks to improve Catholic-Muslim relations on Tuesday slammed Pope Benedict XVI’s baptism of a prominent convert from Islam as a “provocative” act.
In an Easter vigil service Saturday night in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope baptized Egyptian-born Magdi Allam, a TV and newspaper commentator in Italy who has harshly denounced what he calls “inherent” violence in Islam.
The scholar, Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, denounced what he called “the Vatican’s deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam on such a special occasion and in such a spectacular way.”
“It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points,” Nayed said in a written statement.
He said the baptism came “at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities.”
Earlier this month, Nayed participated in two days of talks at the Vatican, including with Benedict’s top official or interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, to prepare for an audience in November between the pontiff and Muslim religious leaders and scholars.
The Vatican has been eager to mend relations with moderate Islam and has placed a great deal of importance on the upcoming audience with representatives of 138 Muslim scholars who wrote to the pope last year calling for greater Muslim-Christian dialogue.
Their call came after Benedict gave a speech in 2006 citing a medieval emperor’s words about Islam and violence. The speech angered many in the Muslim world, and Benedict later expressed regret that the speech had sparked anger.
Of the Allam baptism by the pope, Nayed said: “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.”
Despite this “unfortunate episode,” Nayed said, the work to improve relations would continue.
“Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of ‘reciprocity,”‘ but “a compassionate theology of mending,” the scholar wrote.
On Monday, an Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi said of the conversion: “The pope provokes the indignation of Muslims by baptizing an Egyptian journalist who attacks Islam and defends Israel.”
Allam has built his career as commentator and book author on a crusade attacking Islamic extremism and supporting Israel.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano on Tuesday denied that the baptism had been played up, saying word of it was kept secret until just before the ceremony.
It described the baptism as a papal “gesture” aimed at stressing “in a gentle and clear way, religious freedom.”
“There are no hostile intentions toward a great religion like that of Islam,” the newspaper wrote.
In separate efforts to improve dialogue, Saudi King Abdullah on Tuesday called for a dialogue among monotheistic religions, including Judaism, the first such proposal from a country where non-Muslims are banned from practicing their faith.
In a piece Allam wrote in Milan daily Corriere della Sera on Sunday, he reflected on extremism and Islamic terrorism, writing that the “root of the evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual.”
On Tuesday, Ugo Intini, a deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs, criticized Allam’s “very harsh condemnation …. against entire Islam, against the Muslim faith in itself and against all religious Muslims.”
In an unusual appeal in a country where governments are highly respectful of the Holy See, Intini called on the Vatican, “after the emphasis given to Allam’s conversion, to distance itself clearly from his statements.”
Allam, an Italian citizen, is a deputy editor of Corriere della Sera. He says he has never been a practicing Muslim.
Benedict baptized Allam just days after al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in a new audio message, accused the pontiff of playing a role in what he called a “new Crusade” against Islam. The Vatican has described the accusation as baseless.
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