Muslim baptized by pope says life in danger

VATICAN CITY Sun Mar 23, 2008 2:35pm EDT

1 of 2. Pope Benedict XVI baptises journalist Magdi Allam (R) as he celebrates a Easter Vigil mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 22, 2008. Pope Benedict led the world's Catholics into Easter on Saturday at a Vatican service where he baptised Allam, a Muslim-born convert who is one of Italy's most famous and controversial journalists.

Credit: Reuters/Dario Pignatelli

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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A Muslim author and critic of Islamic fundamentalism who was baptized a Catholic by Pope Benedict said on Sunday Islam is "physiologically violent" and he is now in great danger because of his conversion.

"I realize what I am going up against but I will confront my fate with my head high, with my back straight and the interior strength of one who is certain about his faith," said Magdi Allam.

In a surprise move on Saturday night, the pope baptized the 55-year-old, Egyptian-born Allam at an Easter eve service in St Peter's Basilica that was broadcast around the world.

The conversion of Allam to Christianity -- he took the name "Christian" for his baptism -- was kept secret until the Vatican disclosed it in a statement less than an hour before it began.

Writing in Sunday's edition of the leading Corriere della Sera, the newspaper of which he is a deputy director, Allam said: "... the root of evil is innate in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual".

Allam, who is a strong supporter of Israel and who an Israeli newspaper once called a "Muslim Zionist," has lived under police protection following threats against him, particularly after he criticized Iran's position on Israel.

He said before converting he had continually asked himself why someone who had struggled for what he called "moderate Islam" was then "condemned to death in the name of Islam and on the basis of a Koranic legitimization".

His conversion, which he called "the happiest day of my life," came just two days after al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden accused the pope of being part of a "new crusade" against Islam.

The Vatican appeared to be at pains to head off criticism from the Islamic world about the conversion.

"Conversion is a private matter, a personal thing and we hope that the baptism will not be interpreted negatively by Islam," Cardinal Giovanni Re told an Italian newspaper.

Still, Allam's highly public baptism by the pope shocked Italy's Muslim community, with some leaders openly questioning why the Vatican chose to shine such a big spotlight it.

"What amazes me is the high profile the Vatican has given this conversion," Yaha Sergio Yahe Pallavicini, vice-president of the Italian Islamic Religious Community, told Reuters. "Why could he have not done this in his local parish?"

ANOTHER DEATH SENTENCE

Allam, the author of numerous books, said he realized that his conversion would likely procure him "another death sentence for apostasy," or the abandoning of one's faith.

But he said he was willing to risk it because he had "finally seen the light, thanks to divine grace".

Allam defended the pope in 2006 when the pontiff made a speech in Regensburg, Germany, that many Muslims perceived as depicting Islam as a violent faith.

He said he made his decision to convert after years of deep soul searching and asserted that the Catholic Church has been "too prudent about conversions of Muslims".

At a Sunday morning Easter mass hours after he baptized Allam, the pope, without mentioning him, spoke in a prayer of the continuing "miracle" of conversion to Christianity some 2,000 years after Christ's resurrection.

The Vatican statement announcing Allam's conversion said: "For the Catholic Church, each person who asks to receive Baptism after a deep personal search, a fully free choice and adequate preparation, has a right to receive it."

It said all newcomers to the faith were "equally important before God's love and welcome in the community of the Church".

(Reporting by Philip Pullella, editing by Mary Gabriel)

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