PARIS/CAIRO — The Vatican’s high-profiled, headline-grabbing baptism of a Muslim-born convert earlier this week has raised eyebrows not only among Muslims but Catholics as well.
“I don’t understand why he wasn’t baptized in his hometown by his local bishop,” Christophe Roucou, the French Catholic Church’s top official for relations with Islam, told Reuters.
Pope Benedict XVI baptized Egyptian-born Magdi Allam, an vicious critic of Islam and defender of Israel, Saturday at a Vatican Easter service.
Vatican Television zoomed in on Allam, who sat in the front row of the basilica, before he received his first Communion.
As a choir sang, the pontiff poured holy water over Allam’s head and said a brief prayer in Latin.
His conversion to Christianity was a well-kept secret, disclosed by the Vatican less than an hour before the Easter eve service started.
The picture and high-profile baptism made international headlines.
Muslim intellectuals were angered, not by the conversion, but the way it was handled by the Vatican.
“The whole spectacle…provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope’s advisers on Islam,” Aref Ali Nayed, the director of Jordan’s the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, said in a statement.
He regretted that the Vatican had turned the baptism into “a triumphalist tool for scoring points.”
Nayed, one of 138 Muslim scholars who last October issued an unprecedented appeal for a serious interfaith dialogue with Christians, asked the Vatican to distance itself from Allam’s searing attack on Islam.
“[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.”
Allam has been a fierce critic of Islam.
“Beyond…the phenomenon of extremists and Islamist terrorism at the global level, the root of evil is inherent to a physiologically violent and historically conflictual Islam,” he wrote in his della Sera daily hours after his baptism.
The All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat and the South Asian Council for Minorities also criticized the Vatican handling.
They dismissed the high-profile baptism as “patronization of Allam’s views on Islam by the Vatican.”
“The incident provokes genuine questions about the motives behind this high-profile ceremony and the future plans of the Vatican vis-a-vis other faiths,” they said in a joint statement mailed to IslamOnline.net.
They said this negates Vatican’s recent announcement that it sincerely wishes to engage Muslims in dialogue, expecting it to hinder the peaceful co-existence and meaningful interfaith dialogue.
Mahmoud Belhimer, deputy editor of Algeria’s popular El Khabar newspaper, said Allam’s conversion “could have been normal if he had not made anti-Islamic comments.”
Mohamed Yatim, commentator for the Moroccan daily Attajdid, said the move is a part of a growing anti-Islam trend in the West.
“[This is] a new provocation for the Islamic world and part of a trend that has intensified in recent years with the caricatures of the Prophet.”
Denmark’s main dailies reprinted on February 13, a drawing of a man described as the prophet with a ticking bomb in his turban.
This has reignited a controversy that first surfaced in 2005 after the mass-circulation Jyllands-Posten commissioned and printed 12 cartoons of the prophet, sending thousands of protesting Muslims into the streets across the world.
Pope Benedict himself angered Muslims in 2006 after delivering a lecture in which he cited criticism of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) by an ancient Roman emperor.
“Nevertheless, we will not let this unfortunate episode distract us from our work on pursuing ‘A Common Word’ for the sake of humanity and world peace,” said Nayed, the Muslim scholar.
“Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of reciprocity.”