VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict’s baptism of an Italian Muslim over Easter weekend was not a hostile act against Islam, the Vatican’s newspaper wrote on Tuesday after the public conversion prompted criticism in the Muslim world.
In a surprise move, the pope baptized Egyptian-born Magdi Allam, a well-known journalist and outspoken critic of radical Islamism, at an Easter Vigil service in St Peter’s Basilica on Saturday evening that was broadcast around the globe.
Muslim commentators said Allam’s hostile writings and his headline-grabbing baptism strained relations between Muslims and the Catholic Church and cast shadows over a recently agreed dialogue between Catholicism and Islam.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, apparently reacting to this criticism, wrote a front-page editorial arguing that Benedict’s gesture was an expression of religious freedom and certainly not directed against Islam.
“There is no hostile intention toward such an important religion as Islam,” editor-in-chief Gian Maria Vian wrote on Tuesday. “For many decades now, the Catholic Church has shown its willingness to engage and dialogue with the Muslim world, despite thousands of difficulties and obstacles.”
But critics of the baptism questioned why the pope chose to highlight the conversion of Allam, known in Italy for his attacks on Islam. Church experts on Islam privately expressed concern that his message could strain inter-faith relations.
Writing in Sunday’s edition of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, 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.”
Catholic-Muslim relations nosedived in 2006 after Benedict delivered a lecture in Regensburg, Germany, that implied he thought Islam was violent and irrational.
Muslims around the world protested and the pope, who said he did not agree with the Byzantine emperor he had quoted, sought to make amends by visiting the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul and praying towards Mecca with its imam.
Earlier in March, the Vatican agreed with Muslim leaders to establish a permanent, official dialogue to improve relations.
L’Osservatore Romano said the Vatican remained dedicated toward dialogue with Islam: “Difficulties and obstacles should not overshadow what there is in common and how much can come of the future.”
Aref Ali Nayed, a key figure in a group of over 200 Muslim scholars that launched the dialogue with the Vatican and other Christian churches, said on Monday the Vatican had turned the baptism into “a triumphalist tool for scoring points.”
“The whole spectacle... provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope’s advisers on Islam,” Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; Editing by Jon Boyle