From John Allen:
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, on the holiest day of the Christian year, could further inflame Catholic/Muslim tensions.
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 regard as an anemic response from Western governments, Italy in particular, to the threat posed by the radicals.
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.”
Perhaps fearing that Allam’s conversion could spark a new round of Catholic/Muslim controversy, the Vatican issued a statement this evening playing down its significance.
“For the Catholic church, every person who asks to receive Baptism after a deep personal search, 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, considering them all equally important before the love of God and the welcome of the community of the church.”