VATICAN CITY - Italy’s most prominent Muslim, an iconoclastic writer who condemned Islamic extremism and defended Israel, converted to Catholicism Saturday in a baptism by the pope at a Vatican Easter service.
An Egyptian-born, non-practicing Muslim who is married to a Catholic, Magdi Allam infuriated some Muslims with his books and columns in the newspaper Corriere della Sera newspaper, where he is a deputy editor. He titled one book “Long Live Israel.”
As a choir sang, Pope Benedict XVI poured holy water over Allam’s head and said a brief prayer in Latin.
“We no longer stand alongside or in opposition to one another,” Benedict said in a homily reflecting on the meaning of baptism. “Thus faith is a force for peace and reconciliation in the world: distances between people are overcome, in the Lord we have become close.”
He did not speak to the press Saturday and his newspaper said it had no information about his conversion.
Allam said in the interview that he had made a pilgrimage to Mecca, as is required of all Muslims, with his deeply religious mother in 1991, although he was not otherwise observant.
“I was never practicing,” he was quoted as saying. “I never prayed five times a day, facing Mecca. I never fasted during Ramadan.”
Allam also explained his decision to title a recent book “Viva Israele” by saying he wrote it after he received death threats from Hamas.
“Having been condemned to death, I have reflected a long time on the value of life. And I discovered that behind the origin of the ideology of hatred, violence and death is the discrimination against Israel. Everyone has the right to exist except for the Jewish state and its inhabitants,” he said. “Today, Israel is the paradigm of the right to life.”