ROME — Pope Benedict XVI had a surprise guest at the Easter Vigil: A prominent Italian Muslim who had spent a year preparing to enter the Catholic Church.

Magdi Allam, 56, was baptized March 22 in the globally televised Easter Vigil at St. Peter’s Basilica.

In the tense dialogue between Christians and Muslims, his personal statement of faith was misinterpreted by some as a provocative political maneuver.

But Allam told the Register that he, not the co-religionists he left behind, knows best why he converted to the Catholic faith.

Allam was born in Cairo and attended Catholic schools. He says he remembers being interested in the Catholic faith as early in his life as age 4. Though they didn’t try to convert him, he said, the formation by the Salesians and Comboni sisters helped him “become aware of the reality of religion, it allowed me to share in the lives of Catholic religious and lay figures, to read the Bible and the Gospels, to attend Mass.”

He moved to Italy in 1972 at age 20 and has lived there since. In recent years, he said, “two experiences accelerated my path” to conversion.

“The first was five years ago when I found myself escorted under armed guard because of threats from extremists and Islamic terrorists,” said Allam. “This situation forced me to reflect not only on the reality of Islamic extremism, but also Islam as a religion.”

The second experience was the opportunity to encounter ordinary Catholics — and one extraordinary one, Pope Benedict XVI himself.

“I am proud to have been one of the few Muslims in Italy working for a national newspaper who stood firm in defending the Pope after his discourse in Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006,” said Allam. “I didn’t only defend him in the name of freedom of expression, I also defended the content of what he said, believing that it corresponded to the truth on a historical and scientific level.”

The Holy Father’s speech stressed the importance of reason and opposed violence in religion. He said his plans to be baptized by the Pope coalesced about a year ago when he began a preparation course with Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University.

Aref Ali Nayed is a spokesman for the 138 Muslim scholars who initiated the Common Word dialogue project in October and who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with the Vatican in early March.

Nayed questioned Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to baptize Allam in such a public way.

“It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points,” Nayed said. “It is sad that the particular person chosen for such a highly public gesture has a history of generating, and continues to generate, hateful discourse.”

Allam says that this is far from the truth.

“I wasn’t sought out,” he said, “that wouldn’t have been possible. No, and I never thought for a moment when I decided to become a Catholic that such a positive thing could happen. “

To Allam, the controversy about his conversion reveals a deadly double standard.

“I am really baffled that they consider the baptism of a Muslim to Christianity a provocation, and that the image of the Pope baptizing a Muslim should make this fact even more serious,” he said. “It’s as if some think the baptism of a Muslim is something shameful, so much so that they’d have preferred it if I was baptized in a distant parish, away from the people, because it’s better that people don’t know about it. I am proud to be a convert to Catholicism and to have publicly affirmed it in a solemn way.”

He said in Europe, there are thousands who have converted to Islam and “no one says anything. No one is allowed to criticize them, or threaten them, but if just one Muslim converts to Christianity, immediately he is sentenced to death for apostasy. That’s happening now in Europe — not in Saudi Arabia. If we in Europe are not at the stage of defending religious liberty, including the right of a Muslim to convert to the Christian religion or any other faith, then I’d say we have lost our battle for civilization and liberty.”

Moderate Islam

Allam is in a unique position to see the Muslim-Christian conflict. On the one hand, he was until recently known as a voice within Islam calling for moderation. On the other, he now must take security precautions because he feels threatened by Muslims angry at him for converting.

“I am convinced there are moderate Muslims, that there are Muslims who share rules that allow for coexistence,” he said. “People are not automatic products of the dogmas of their faith; they’re not like fruits of a tree. In reality, people are more complex. Each person is different, has his own particular relationship with his religion that can be more or less intense.”

“We have to distinguish between persons and religions” he said.

“Islam is a religion that has always been plural because it’s had within it a myriad of souls. But as a religion it’s never been pluralistic, it’s not been democratic.”

He said “war is internal to Islam. … It’s enough to think that three of the four successors of Muhammad were assassinated by Muslims because they were contrary to the way they considered Islam, their way of exercising power.”

But is Islam doomed to repeat that future? Can it change?

“I don’t want to put limits on Providence, but as a Muslim of 56 years, I couldn’t be sure of the possibility of internal reform in Islam, that it could fully render itself compatible with the values and principles that I consider inalienable and inviolable.”

The best hope, he said, is for coexistence.

Allam must now deal with one consequence of his action: Anger by people who share his concerns about Islamic extremism but nonetheless fear that by being baptized in the way he was, he will provoke attacks on Christians.

But Allam said that this attitude is based in part on a misunderstanding.

“We should free ourselves from the common assumption that the violence of extremism and Islamic terrorism is reactive, that is to say, it’s due to provocation and is incited,” he said.

He cited the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to characterize Islamic terrorism as “aggressive” rather than defensive. Osama Bin Laden acted without provocation.

“It was an act of war, an act of aggression against the United States,” he said. “Today, Christians in the Middle East, Muslim countries, in Iraq, are being slaughtered. They’re being persecuted in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon. All of these things haven’t happened because they were provoked by the Pope. They kill them because they consider the use of violence to be legitimate against all those who do not resemble them.”

Rather than reacting to events, terrorists strike where they will and make up reasons as they wish, he said.

“They manipulate events to say: ‘It’s the fault of the Pope, it’s the fault of Magdi Allam,’ and because of that, we can behave in a certain way. But they’re already doing it: Since 1945, around 10 million Christians abandoned the Middle East. In the countries on the southern shores of the eastern Mediterranean, there were 1 million Jews; today there are about 1,000. All this happened because of the reality of intolerance and violence towards those who are not Muslim.”

Osama Bin Laden released a threatening message that mentioned the Pope a few days before Easter. Will the coincidence make his conversion look like part of a crusade?

Allam refused to even consider the question.

“Bin Laden is the ideological head of a globalized Islamic terrorist network,” he said. “We are talking about a criminal, the most hunted man on earth, who has massacred thousands of people, a man who legitimized the indiscriminate killing of all people who do not submit to his power. We cannot in any way legitimize such a person and consider him in negotiations. The Pope hasn’t launched a crusade.”

To Allam, the baptism says something quite different about Pope Benedict.

“He has put faith and reason before other diplomatic and political considerations,” said Allam. “I believe the Pope in this circumstance has shown himself to be a great Pope because he has set himself above the fray.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.