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.
That is certainly true, but such a high-level conversion can’t be seen outside its wider context. Islam considers conversion to another religion a grave insult to God. In some Muslim states including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, it is punishable by death. Abdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity pictured at right during his trial for apostasy, only escaped death in 2006 because of an international outcry; he found refuge in Italy. Not all Muslims agree with this. An Italian Muslim spokesman, for example, stressed that Allam’s conversion was a personal decision and only questioned why Benedict chose to make his baptism such a public event. He could have been baptised in his local church without all the publicity, he said. This high-visibility baptism looks likely to provoke protests from Muslims in some parts of the world and raise questions about Benedict’s intentions.
France 24 television interrupted my Easter lunch en famille to interview me about this and their main question was whether it was a response to Osama bin Laden’s threat against the pope. That assumes a U.S. campaign-style readiness to react that is miles or centuries away from the way the Vatican works. Easter is the traditional time to baptise adult converts. Allam had to go through a long period of study before being accepted for baptism. Benedict had to know about this at least several weeks ago. In his article in Corriere (see below), Allam mentions a meeting with Benedict where he told him of his intention to convert and the pope said he would gladly baptise him. But Allam does not mention the date.
If challenged, the pope would probably first say that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions for which conversion is legitimate as long as the person makes the choice to change religions freely. What is objectionable, he would argue, is proselytism, i.e. aggressive efforts to win converts (“stealing sheep”, some clerics would say). There are progressive Muslims who will agree with this view intellectually, but probably few would be comfortable with it.
If Benedict were pressed to explain this step further (which is not, by the way, something that we journalists get to do that often!), I think he would say that differences about conversion would be a perfect topic to discuss in the new Catholic-Muslim Forum that was just launched two weeks ago. The experts in this dialogue could explain each faith’s view of religious freedom, personal commitment and divine will. Over the course of several meetings, maybe several years, they might come to a better understanding of the relationship between individual believers and faith communities. Maybe such discussions could even influence leading Muslims to take a broader view of religious freedom, leading to greater liberty for Muslims and for the non-Muslims living in Islamic countries. Seen this way, the question to ask at the next opportunity (when? maybe in the papal plane to the United States on April 15?) is: “Holy Father, did you baptise Allam to put the issue of conversion firmly on the agenda for the Catholic-Muslim Forum talks?”