The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.
The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.
Reporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.
We don’t know if the Vatican knew Allam would publish such an outspoken article on Sunday. Several Church sources have said off the record they were surprised and put off by its polemical tone and said it effectively drowned out the weak Vatican efforts to play down the baptism. Whether it was planned or not, Allam’s article became part of the whole story. As will his subsequent comments, as in an interview in today’s Il Giornale.
That was evident in the response that Aref Ali Nayed of the “Common Word” initiative gave to the Allam story on Monday. Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said he consulted several other signatories of the dialogue appeal before issuing the statement. One of the first things to note is that he treats Allam’s conversion as a personal decision and says “It is God who will judge him.” I didn’t expect “Common Word” signatories to denounce Allam as an apostate deserving death, but it’s worth noting the absence of any such comment because that traditionalist view is the one that’s probably best known to non-Muslims.