Pope baptizes fierce critic of Islamic radicalism during Easter Vigil

New York

One of the best-known Muslims in Italy, a journalist who in some ways is the heir to Oriana Fallaci as the country’s most prominent critic of Islamic radicalism, is to be baptized this evening by Pope Benedict XVI and received into the Catholic church.

Magdi Allam, a columnist and vice-director of Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, is among seven new Catholics from five countries to be personally baptized by the pope during the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.

Particularly in the wake of recent charges by terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden that Benedict XVI is leading a “new crusade” against Islam, the reception of such a high-profile Muslim convert during the holiest period of the Christian year could further inflame Catholic/Muslim tensions.

A spokesperson for Italy's Muslim community, Yahya Pallavicini, said that he "respects the free choice" made by Allam, but voiced "perplexity" about the timing and the decision to receive Allam in a place "of such great symbolic importance."

On the other hand, the choice to baptize Allam during the Easter vigil could also be read as a sign of determination from Benedict, that he will not be intimidated by implied threats such as those voiced in bin Laden's recent audiotape.

Allam, 56, was born in Cairo, Egypt. His family later immigrated to Italy, where he became a prominent journalist, known for his fierce criticism of Islamic fundamentalism. Allam has also repeatedly criticized what he regards as an anemic response from Western governments, Italy in particular, to the threat posed by the radicals.

“Italy, Europe and the West made a big mistake by opening the doors to too many integralists and extremists, who were running from their countries of origin because of their connection to terrorism and extremism,” Allam said in 2005.

“We allowed them to take control of mosques in European countries,” Allam said then. “In effect, the West nourished its own enemy because of a naïve approach.”

Allam’s most recent book, which appeared in late 2007, is titled Viva Israele. In it, Allam argues that Israel represents a culture of life, in contrast with militant Islam’s culture of death.

In a recent interview with an Israeli news agency, Allam was asked about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His lapidary response: “I hope that someday Israel will capture Ahmadinejad and force him to live the rest of his life between the walls of Yad Vashem.”

Those views have not made Allam universally popular. He’s received numerous threats from Islamic radicals over the years, and typically moves in public with an escort. His tough line, however, has also sometimes drawn criticism from moderates, both Christian and Muslim, who see him as sometimes inflammatory.

That was the spirit of a letter critical of Allam’s latest book published in the Italian journal Reset, signed by some 230 writers, academics and activists, both Muslim and Christian, in its July-August issue.

“Journalism risks falling into the logic of cheering for one sports team against another, rather than being rational and analytical, above all when it’s dealing with delicate and sensitive subjects such as religion,” it said, accusing Allam of adopting the all-or-nothing logic of “totalitarian ideologies.”

The appeal was signed by a “who’s who” of center-left Italian Catholic opinion, including Enzo Bianchi, founder of the ecumenical monastery of Bose; Paolo Branca, an expert on Islam and advisor to Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan; Alfredo Canavero, a scholar who also writes for L’Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops; and Alberto Melloni, a well-known church historian.

In effect, this school of thought believes that Allam’s hard line actually serves the interests of Western neo-cons and Islamic radicals, both of whom, they say, benefit from polarizing opinion in order to justify unending combat. Meanwhile, a number of leading Italian figures leapt to Allam’s defense, insisting that his critics are in denial about the realities of radical Islam.

Though Allam has typically described himself as a “secular Muslim,” he is no stranger to the Catholic church. Over the years, he has been close to the Communion and Liberation movement in Italy, becoming one of the star attractions at the annual “Meeting” sponsored by the movement at the Italian seaside resort of Rimini. That event typically draws in excess of 700,000 people, including the cream of Italy’s political class.

During those sessions, Allam has typically voiced deep appreciation for Catholic social doctrine and, more generally, for the strong defense of a link between reason and faith offered by both John Paul II and now Benedict XVI.

Allam enthusiastically embraced Benedict’s call to resist a “dictatorship of relativism,” connecting it to the struggle against Islamic extremism.

“We must put together a coalition of values among those who believe that all life is sacred, to fight a kind of ideological nihilism that sees life’s value as merely relative,” he said recently. “Only in this way can we remove the roots that nourish the terrorists’ wars.”

In itself, Allam's conversion may not generate much reaction in the Muslim world. In recent years, Muslim critics of Allam's work have often assumed that he was a Christian, in part because of his clear affinity with the Catholic church. The fact that Benedict XVI personally baptized him on such a high-profile occasion, however, could be read by some as a provocation.

Perhaps fearing that reaction, the Vatican issued a statement this evening playing down the significance of Allam's inclusion among the new Catholics baptized by the pope.

“For the Catholic church, every person who asks to receive Baptism after a deep personal search, and who makes a completely free choice following adequate preparation, has the right to receive it,” said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson.

“For his part, the Holy Father administers Baptism in the course of the Easter liturgies to the candidates who are presented to him, without making distinctions among them. He considers them all equally important in terms of the love of God and the welcome of the community of the church.”

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