A few days ago, Osama bin Laden released a message threatening Benedict XVI for leading a “new Crusade” against Islam. Whether he meant to or not, the Holy Father issued a ringing answer to the architect of 9/11 by receiving into the Church Europe’s most vocal Muslim critic of bin Laden and Islamic terrorism.
Magdi Allam, deputy director of Italy’s largest newspaper, is a leading journalist and author of several studies of Islamic extremists, including Osama bin Laden: A Journey Through Radical Islam (in Italian only).
He took the baptismal name of “Christian,” which underscored his decision to leave the community of Islam.
That Benedict chose to receive Allam personally has angered some prominent Muslims. “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. “Why could he have not done this in his local parish?”
Fox commentator Greg Burke, a veteran Vatican reporter, warned of “repercussions” because of the “in your face” nature of Allam’s reception into the Church. The most obvious repercussions may be for Allam himself, who predicts he will receive his second “death sentence” for the “apostasy” of his conversion from Islam. The first death sentence he received came as a result of his public criticism of Islamic terrorism and his defense of Benedict’s 2006 speech at Regensburg.
“I realize what I am going up against, but I will confront my fate with my head high, with my back straight, and the interior strength of one who is certain about his faith,” said Allam.
The consternation of Muslim leaders like Pallavicini may throw a wrench into preparations for the upcoming meeting between the Holy Father and Islamic religious leaders. This meeting was scheduled for later this year after 138 prominent leaders signed a letter of protest to Benedict for his Regensburg speech, which raised the issue of Holy War and forced conversion in the history of Islam. Allam was critical of the letter to Benedict and refused to support it.
Allam, it seems, has not been a practicing Muslim for many years. “I was never practicing,” he was quoted in an Italian newspaper. “I never prayed five times a day, facing Mecca. I never fasted during Ramadan.”
Born to Muslim parents in Egypt, Allam was sent early to Catholic boarding school before moving to Italy and attending La Sapienza University, which was founded by Boniface VIII in 1303 but was secularized in 1870.
The mounting criticism of Allam from Muslims, along with the death threats, has led him to become a strong defender of Israel. Allam’s Viva Israele (Long Live Israel) was published last year.
“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. . . . Today, Israel is the paradigm of the right to life.”
The Vatican has sought to downplay Allam’s conversion, saying, “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.”
Of course, the same 138 Muslims who signed the letter protesting the Regensburg speech will note how the Vatican statement contrasts perfectly with the themes of Holy War and forced conversions that created the controversy in the first place.
In receiving Allam in St. Peter’s, the Holy Father has taken a public stance with a man whose articles are deliberately provocative. Take, for example, his column discussing his decision to convert. He described his embrace of Christianity as being “liberated from the obscurantism of an ideology which legitimizes lies and dissimulation, violent death, which induces both murder and suicide, and blind submission to tyranny.”
In contrast to Islam, Allam writes, “Christianity is the authentic religion of Truth, Life, and Liberty.” He adds, “Beyond the phenomenon of extremists and Islamist terrorism at the global level, the root of evil is inherent in a physiologically violent and historically conflictual Islam.”
Allam’s conversion and his very public reception by Benedict XVI heighten the drama surrounding the pope’s upcoming trip to the United States from April 15-20. Packed into that trip will be many opportunities for him to address, once again, the problem of Islamic extremism — most notably, his visit to “ground zero” in lower Manhattan on the last day of his stay.
Some commentators are predicting that the media will take a pass on Benedict’s first trip to the United States. It’s impossible to predict what might bump the pope out of the news cycle, but there are multiple dramas surrounding his trip, and the Allam affair has just added another one.
One can imagine that the Holy Father was advised not to receive Allam personally after the threat from bin Laden. But this is the man who “called out” Islamic extremists at Regensburg and then, risking his own safety, traveled to Turkey a year later. I cannot imagine Benedict changing his plans on account of any threat — least of all from the likes of Osama bin Laden.