VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When Pope Benedict XVI welcomed into the Catholic Church a Muslim-born journalist often critical of Islam, it was not a sign that the pope accepts everything the journalist believes, said the Vatican spokesman.
The Italian journalist, Magdi Allam, “has the right to express his own ideas. They remain his personal opinions without in any way becoming the official expression of the positions of the pope or the Holy See,” said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi.
Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, made his comments March 27 in response to a statement from Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for the 138 Muslim scholars who initiated the Common Word dialogue project in October and who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with the Vatican in early March.
Father Lombardi said baptism is a recognition that the person entering the church “has freely and sincerely accepted the Christian faith in its fundamental articles” as expressed in the creed.
“Of course, believers are free to maintain their own ideas on a vast range of questions and problems on which legitimate pluralism exists among Christians,” he said. “Welcoming a new believer into the church clearly does not mean espousing all that person’s ideas and opinions, especially on political and social matters.”
Nayed questioned the pope’s decision to baptize Allam March 22 during the globally televised Easter Vigil from St. Peter’s Basilica.
“It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points,” Nayed 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,” he added.
In a March 25 interview with Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper, Allam said his decision to convert grew as he became convinced that it was impossible to believe in a moderate form of Islam because “a substantial ambiguity found in the Quran and in the concrete actions of Mohammed” feeds violent tendencies.
Nayed said, “The basic message of Allam’s most recent article is the very message of the Byzantine emperor quoted by the pope in his infamous Regensburg lecture,” given in Germany in 2006. The pope quoted a medieval emperor asserting that Islam spread its faith through violence.
The Muslim scholar said, “It is not far-fetched to see this (Allam’s baptism) as another way of reasserting the message of Regensburg, which the Vatican keeps insisting was not intended. It is now important for the Vatican to distance itself from Allam’s discourse.”
Father Lombardi’s statement also strongly objected to the way Nayed referred to Allam’s early education in Catholic schools in Egypt, implying that Catholic schools try to proselytize non-Christian students.
The Catholic Church’s commitment to the education of all children deserves praise and not suspicion, Father Lombardi said.
In countries where Christians are a minority — including Egypt, India and Japan, for example — “the great majority of students in Catholic schools and universities are non-Christians and have happily remained so, while showing great appreciation for the education they received,” he said.
Father Lombardi said the Catholic Church today does not deserve an accusation that it lacks respect for human dignity and freedom, but there are many situations in the world where such respect is lacking and which need attention.
“Maybe this is why the pope accepted the risk of this baptism: to affirm the freedom of religious choice which derives from the dignity of the human person,” he said.