Why Did the Pope Baptize a Muslim?

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Just three days after Usama bin Laden issued a warning to his followers that “the Pope of the Vatican” is playing a “large and lengthy role” in a “new Crusade” against Islam, on Saturday night Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world by baptizing into the Christian faith the most prominent Muslim journalist in Italy.

The service in St. Peter’s Basilica was televised internationally.

The new Christian convert is Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born deputy editor of Italy’s flagship newspaper, the Corriere della Sera. Mr. Allam is well known for having infuriated fellow Muslims for his criticism of Palestinian suicide bombers and for his support for Israel’s sovereignty. In 2003, the Italian government was forced to provide Mr. Allam with a personal security detail after he received death threats on account of his controversial writings.

Today there are heightened security concerns for both the Pope and Magdi Allam.

And the world media has begun to scrutinize — as it should — the Pope’s motives for highlighting an event that unquestionably would make news and ruffle feathers. Was this a provocative, backhanded slap to Muslims? After all, the baptism could have been performed privately in Mr. Allam’s home town of Viterbo, or it could have been administered by someone else besides the Pope. At the very least, it could have taken place in the Pope’s private chapel, away from television cameras.

But it wasn’t. It was done in the most public of venues and by the very man who bin Laden labeled the leader of “a new Crusade against Islam.”


Some keen Vatican watchers, whose judgment I respect, have said the whole shebang was a tragic public relations gaffe, a sign of ivory tower naiveté of gross proportion. I don’t buy that analysis. Time will tell whether the Pope’s decision was a prudent one, but I am certain it was a conscientious one. After the violent reaction to his infamous Regensburg address, and having just been threatened by the world’s most wanted terrorist, the Pope didn’t go on international television and baptize a public and controversial Muslim journalist by accident.

Let’s speculate for a moment what the Pope’s rationale may have been. We will look briefly at:

1) Mr. Allam’s conversion story and the Pope’s involvement in it
2) The official Vatican response to the controversy
3) The context of this pope’s previous approach to religious fundamentalism.

Today, Mr. Allam published a lengthy account of his conversion process. The Zenit News Agency has made available an English translation of the entire article. Here are a few excerpts of particular importance, in Mr. Allam’s own words:

“But undoubtedly the most extraordinary and important encounter in my decision to convert was that with Pope Benedict XVI, whom I, as a Muslim, admired and defended for his mastery in setting down the indissoluble link between faith and reason as a basis for authentic religion and human civilization…”

“You asked me whether I fear for my life, in the awareness that conversion to Christianity will certainly procure for me yet another and much more grave death sentence for apostasy. You are perfectly right. I know what I am headed for but I face my destiny with my head held high, standing upright and with the interior solidity of one who has the certainty of his faith. And I will be more so after the courageous and historical gesture of the Pope, who, as soon as he knew of my desire, immediately agreed to personally impart the Christian sacraments of initiation to me. His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims.”

Yesterday, the Pope’s spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, responded to journalists’ questions by saying that anyone who chooses to become a Catholic of his or her own free will has the right to receive the sacrament. He added that the Pope administers baptism "without making any distinction between people, that is, considering all equally important before the love of God and welcoming all in the community of the Church."

This may sound like diplomatic jargon of little importance, but the statement points to a lifetime of study by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope. In this light, Benedict’s agreement to baptize Mr. Allam is not a triumphal sign of dominance of one religion over another. It is a public statement that nobody, not even he, the Pope, has the right to refuse someone’s sincere desire for religious conversion. He is saying “freedom of conscience” is not the private property of Christians or of the West, but rather a universal truth from which no race, religion, or group is exempt. He is saying the search for truth, and the freedom to change one’s mind and religion, is a right that flows from human nature.

Pope Benedict knows the proclamation of this principle is a two-way street. As he has explained on many occasions, rights are “reciprocal” and he is ready and willing to defend Muslim leaders’ right to invite Christians into their fold, as long as this is done without external coercion of any kind.

Time will tell whether Pope Benedict was prudent in participating in such a public way in Mr. Allam’s petition for Christian baptism. But having watched with great surprise the success this Pope has had in bringing together moderate Muslims in a coalition of conscience against fundamentalism, even with all of his straight talk, it would seem prudent of us to withhold judgment for the time being.

We are seeing a story unfold. Pope Benedict’s relentless criticism of religiously motivated violence, his constant reminder to Muslim countries of their obligation to defend “reciprocal rights” (giving Christians in the Middle East the same rights Western countries give to Muslim immigrants), and now his public and visual lesson about “freedom of conscience” are challenging religious and political leaders to drown out the shrill voices of extremists with the melodious sounds of an orchestra where faith and reason compliment each other.

The parallel story is that of a slightly shy and quirky German academic who has the courage of a giant. Benedict the brave. Like him or not, he is speaking softly in a language we can all understand, and in a way that demands a response.

Will the response be rational? That is a question for others to answer.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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P.S. On April 8th a division of Harper Collins will be releasing my first book, “The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts.” It’s a simple book. I hope and pray it will help whoever picks it up to rediscover deep inner peace and joy in the midst of life’s many hard knocks. With many stories and simple explanations, among other things, I have tried to walk the reader through the mystery of how a loving and powerful God could possibly permit so much suffering in our lives and in the world.

You can find information about how to pre-order the book by going to www.fatherjonathan.com

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