Pope to Baptize Prominent Muslim

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Italy's most prominent Muslim commentator is converting to Catholicism by being baptized by the pope at an Easter vigil, the Vatican announced Saturday.

An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim, Magdi Allam has infuriated some fellow Muslims with his criticism of extremism and support for Israel.

The deputy editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Allam often writes on Muslim and Arab affairs. He told the Il Giornale newspaper in a December interview that his criticism of Palestinian suicide bombing generated threats on his life in 2003, prompting the Italian government to provide him with a sizeable security detail.

Pope Benedict XVI was baptizing seven adults during the service, which marks the period between Good Friday, which commemorates Jesus' crucifixion, and Easter Sunday, which marks his resurrection.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said of Allam before the service that anyone who chooses to become a Catholic of his or her own free will has the right to receive the sacrament.

Lombardi said the pope administers the sacrament "without making any 'difference of people,' that is, considering all equally important before the love of God and welcoming all in the community of the Church."

In the Il Giornale interview, Allam explained his complicated relationship with Islam and his affinity for Israel.

"I was never practicing," he was quoted as saying. "I never prayed five times a day, facing Mecca. I never fasted during Ramadan." Yet he said he did make the pilgrimage to Mecca, as is required of all Muslims, with his deeply religious mother in 1991.

Married to a Catholic, with a young son and two adult children from his first marriage, Allam indicated in the interview that he would have no problem converting to Christianity. He said he had even received Communion once - when he was 13 or 14 - "even though I knew it was an act of blasphemy, not having been baptized."

Allam also explained his decision to entitle a recent book "Viva Israel" or "Long Live Israel," saying he wrote it after he received death threats from Hamas.

"Having been condemned to death, I have reflected a long time on the value of life. And I discovered that behind the origin of the ideology of hatred, violence and death is the discrimination against Israel. Everyone has the right to exist except for the Jewish state and its inhabitants," he said. "Today, Israel is the paradigm of the right to life."

In 2006, Allam was a co-winner, with three other journalists, of the $1 million Dan David prize, named for the Israeli entrepreneur of the same name. Allam was cited for "his ceaseless work in fostering understanding and tolerance between cultures."

Benedict opened the lengthy nighttime service by blessing a white candle, which he then carried down the main aisle of the darkened St. Peter's Basilica. Slowly, the pews began to light up as his flame was shared with candles carried by the faithful, until the whole basilica twinkled and the main lights came on.

The baptism rite during the vigil service is part of the joyful renewal Christians associate with Easter.

There is no overarching Muslim law on conversion. But under a widespread interpretation of Islamic legal doctrine, converting from Islam is apostasy and punishable by death - though killings are rare.

Egypt's highest Islamic cleric, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, wrote last year against the killing of apostates, saying there is no worldly retribution for Muslims who abandon their religion and that punishment would come in the afterlife.

Reaction to Allam's conversion was largely muted from Italy's Muslim community.

The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy - which Allam has frequently criticized as having links to Hamas - said the baptism was a personal choice.

"He is an adult, free to make his personal choice," the Apcom news agency quoted the group's spokesman, Issedin El Zir, as saying.

Osama bin Laden accused the pope in a new audio message posted Wednesday of playing a "large and lengthy role" in a "new Crusade" against Islam that included the publication of drawings of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims found insulting.

Lombardi said Thursday that bin Laden's accusation was baseless. He said Benedict repeatedly criticized the Muhammad cartoons, first published in some European newspapers in 2006 and republished by Danish papers in February.


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