March 23, 2008

Pope baptizes famous Muslim convert



By Philip Pullella
Sat Mar 22, 6:45 PM ET


VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict led the world's Catholics into Easter on Saturday at a Vatican service where he baptized a Muslim-born convert who is one of Italy's most famous and controversial journalists.

The pope traditionally baptizes newborns on January 1 and adult converts to Catholicism on Easter eve.

One of the seven adults he baptized on Saturday night was Magdi Allam, 55, an Egyptian-born journalist who, as deputy director of the leading newspaper Corriere della Sera, is one of Italy's best-known intellectuals.

Allam, a fierce critic of Islamic extremism and a strong supporter of Israel, is protected by a police escort because of threats he has received.

His conversion to Christianity was a well-kept secret, disclosed by the Vatican in a statement less than an hour before the Easter eve service started.

"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.

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.

The Vatican statement announcing Allam was joining Catholicism said all newcomers were "equally important before God's love and welcome in the community of the Church."

Allam, who has been living in Italy for 35 years, has said he was never a very devout Muslim. Still, his conversion to Christianity came as a surprise.

"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.

The Easter eve service was the first of three at which the pope presides. On Sunday he will celebrate a mass and then deliver his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing and message.
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