Just when relations between the Vatican and Muslims were improving, Pope Benedict has taken a highly symbolic step that could set them back again. On Saturday evening, at the Easter Vigil Mass, he baptised seven people including one of Italy’s best-known Muslims. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is deputy director of the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. The Egyptian-born journalist, who has lived in Italy since his university days, was one of the few Muslims who defended the pope after his controversial Regensburg speech in 2006. Allam’s outspoken articles have already prompted death threats from Islamists and he lives under constant guard. Announcing the surprise move only an hour before it took place, the Vatican stressed the Catholic Church had the right to baptise anyone who wanted to join it and that all were equal in the eyes of God.
When journalists write about churches in decline, we usually cite facts such as falling attendance and dwindling vocations to illustrate the trend. On a recent trip to the remote southern island of Ikitsuki to visit descendants of Japan’s Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians), a Reuters team discovered a surprising new indicator with a fascinating story behind it. Apart from suffering from dwindling numbers, some congregations in this unique branch of Christianity no longer know how to baptise new members.