It could be described as the Pope’s “Muslim problem’ but it really needs not be. Like many of you who watched the Pope Easter Sunday baptizing Magdy Allam, I had conflicting emotions the least of which were about Allam’s decision to become Christian. Magdy Allam has been Italy’s most famous Muslim. No doubt the public baptism was embedded with highly symbolic and spiritual connotations. Some pundits may argue that Allam, a known Muslim critic, has been considering conversion for years. He has written a book titled, “Viva Israele” (Long Live Israel) exalting Israel's virtues and condemning everything Arab or Muslim.
But that baptism could have been performed lovingly and well a thousand different ways – none of which required that his face and story blanket the globe within hours of his reception. Being baptized did not require that he become the poster-boy for some Muslims considering Christianity and there were a number of obvious reasons why he isn’t a great candidate for poster-boy and may actually be counter-productive.Apart from the geo-religious-political implications, all this publicity could actually hamper his spiritual growth and that of his family. Being a trophy convert is often not a good thing for one’s actual process of conversion.
Doubtless, the Pope baptizes no one, obscure or famous, during the Easter Vigil accidentally. And I didn’t notice Vatican spokesman offering comments and clarifications about the other 6 adults baptized in the same liturgy. Someone decided to use a globally streamed event watched by hundreds of millions to transform an individual act of conscience into a global phenomena. It is the wisdom of that decision alone that I question.
My chief gripe here is the overall effect on Muslim-Christian relations. I believe that this baptism unduly damages that relationship. There has been significant, unprecedented advance in Catholic-Muslim relations - much of it spearheaded by the Vatican itself — in the last year (i.e., A Common Word, the recent delegation to the Vatican, the Nov. 2008 conference, the New Jersey statement, etc.).Why then, now, would the Pope revive antagonism in this way? Why such effort to revive relations after a strained several years (i.e., the Pope’s 2006 Regensburg comments and the subsequent debacle. Read my comments here) if only to flush those efforts away with this public provocation.
Somebody must have given him rash advice that this public conversion would somehow advance the position of the Church in the Muslim world. I’m sorry; I just can’t see that happening. Could this even be related to the rumor of a church in Saudi Arabia? In any case, this sure seems to confirm the notion recently put forward by Osama bin Laden himself that the Pope is on a modern day Crusade against Islam.
It escapes me that the Pope, would not realize the potentially harmful effects this would have on the Church and its relationship with the Muslim world. Why add more fuel to the fire. Why give reason to the extremists?
Lest other accuse me of demanding capitulation to Muslim sensibilities, I am not arguing that Christians should not wear a cross or not go to their churches or never publicly declare their Christian faith. All I am asking for is weighing the implication of what we do especially if a more acceptable venue is possible to produce the same result.
Among the Muslim clerics to shake hands with the Pope in Washington, DC, will be Imam Qatanani of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, NJ. The Imam, who is facing deportation from the US, has been a leading figure in interfaith dialogue. Would it not be a fitting opportunity should the Pope visit New Jersey largest Mosque just as he is set to visit a synagogue in NY, as a symbol of respect for Islam whose adherents equal if not surpass Catholicism? The Pope stand to score more points should he listen.
Aref Assaf, PhD, president of American Arab Forum, a think-tank based in Paterson, NJ, specializing in Arab and Muslim affairs. www.aafusa.org