Image: Vatican Easter vigil
Alessandra Tarantino  /  AP
Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Easter vigil mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Saturday.
updated 3/22/2008 7:02:27 PM ET 2008-03-22T23:02:27

Italy's most prominent Muslim commentator, who has long spoken out against Islamic fanaticism and received death threats as a result, converted to Roman Catholicism on Saturday during the Vatican's Easter vigil service presided over by the pope.

Magdi Allam, 55, is the deputy editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper and writes often on Muslim and Arab affairs. He was born a Muslim in Egypt, but was educated by Catholics and says he has never been a practicing Muslim.

Allam's criticism of Palestinian terrorism prompted the Italian government to provide him with a sizable security detail in 2003, after Hamas singled him out for elimination, Allam told the Il Giornale newspaper in a December interview.

Pope Benedict XVI baptized Allam and six other adults during the service in St. Peter's Basilica. The Easter vigil marks the period between Good Friday, which commemorates Jesus' crucifixion, and Easter Sunday, which marks his resurrection.

As a choir sang, Benedict poured holy water over Allam's head and said a brief prayer in Latin.

No longer 'in opposition'
In his homily, Benedict reflected on the meaning of baptism, saying through the sacrament, the Lord enters into the heart of the new Catholic.

"We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another," Benedict said. "Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close."

As he pronounced the words, Vatican television zoomed in on Allam, who sat in the front row of the basilica along with the other candidates for baptism.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said of Allam before the service that anyone who chooses to become a Catholic of his or her own free will has the right to receive the sacrament.

Lombardi said the pope administers the sacrament "without making any 'difference of people,' that is, considering all equally important before the love of God and welcoming all in the community of the Church."

Complicated relationship with Islam
In the Il Giornale interview, Allam explained his complicated relationship with Islam and his affinity for Israel.

"I was never practicing," he was quoted as saying. "I never prayed five times a day, facing Mecca. I never fasted during Ramadan." Yet he said he did make the pilgrimage to Mecca, as is required of all Muslims, with his deeply religious mother in 1991.

Married to a Catholic with a young son named Davide and two adult children from his first marriage, Allam indicated in the interview that he would have no problem converting to Christianity. He confessed he had even received Communion once — when he was 13 or 14 — "even though I knew it was an act of blasphemy, not having been baptized."

Allam also explained his decision to entitle a recent book "Viva Israel" or "Long Live Israel," saying he wrote it after he received the death threats from Hamas.

In 2006, Allam was a co-winner, with three other journalists, of the $1 million Dan David prize, named for the Israeli entrepreneur of the same name. Allam was cited for "his ceaseless work in fostering understanding and tolerance between cultures."

Apostasy under one interpretation
There is no overarching Muslim law on conversion. But under a widespread interpretation of Islamic legal doctrine, converting from Islam is apostasy and punishable by death — though killings are rare.

Egypt's highest Islamic cleric, the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, wrote last year against the killing of apostates, saying there is no worldly retribution for Muslims who abandon their religion and that punishment would come in the afterlife.

Reaction to Allam's conversion was largely muted from Italy's Muslim community.

The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy — which Allam has frequently criticized as having links to Hamas — said the baptism was a personal choice. "He is an adult, free to make his personal choice," the Apcom news agency quoted the group's spokesman, Issedin El Zir as saying.

Osama bin Laden said in a new audio message posted Wednesday that drawings that he said insulted the Prophet Muhammad took place in the framework of a "new Crusade" against Islam, in which he said the pope has played a "large and lengthy role."

Lombardi said Thursday that bin Laden's accusation about the pope was baseless. He said Benedict repeatedly criticized the Muhammad cartoons, first published in some European newspapers in 2006 and republished by Danish papers in February.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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