Cautious Vatican response to Muslim critics on conversion

Vatican, Mar. 28, 2008 ( - Responding to concerns raised by a prominent Muslim scholar, the Vatican has distanced itself from the criticism of Islam expressed by Magdi Allam-- the reporter who was baptized by Pope Benedict XVI (bio - news) at the Easter vigil.

Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, released a statement in reply to comments by Arif Ali Nayed, the director of the Islamic Studies Center in Jordan and a participant in the "Common Word" initiative, who had complained that publicity surrounding the conversion of Allam was "a triumphalist tool for scoring points."

The Vatican spokesman said that Allam's harsh criticisms of militant Islam "remain his personal opinions without in any way becoming the official expression of the positions of the Pope or of the Holy See." While Allam is entitled to his own opinions, he noted, the Church can welcome a new member without "wedding all that person's ideas and opinions, especially on political and social matters."

The secretary-general of the Islamic Cultural Center in Rome, Abdellah Redouane, welcomed Father Lombardi's statement. Saying that Allam's public statements "denigrate Islam," the Muslim leader said that by issuing the clarification, the Vatican had "confirmed its choice of the path of dialogue with Islam."

Magdi Allam has frequently denounced Muslim extremism, and in public statements after his baptism he said that he does not believe that Islam is a religion of peace. Reacting to those comments, Lombardi told Vatican Radio: "He has the right to express his own ideas. They remain his personal opinions without in any way becoming the official expression of the positions of the Pope or the Holy See."

Father Lombardi emphasized that although some Islamic leaders had criticized the conversion of the Egyptian-born journalist, there was never a suggestion that the "Common Word" initiative should be postponed. He noted that even while he lodged his objections to the baptism, Nayed had indicated "his will to continue the dialogue" with the Catholic Church.

Nayed is one of the 138 Islamic leaders who issued a public statement calling for new dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Representatives of that group, organized as the Common Word initiative, will meet with Vatican officials for an in-depth discussion in November 2008.

Underlining the value that the Vatican places on those inter-religious talks, Father Lombardi said: "This process must continue, it is extremely important, it must not be interrupted, and has priority over episodes that may be the subject of misunderstandings."

Father Lombardi took exception to one point that Nayed had made, arguing that it is misguided to charge (as Nayed had) that Christian schools seek to produce converts in Muslim countries. The Vatican spokesman pointed out that in many countries, Catholic schools serve student populations in which the majority "are non-Christian and have happily remained so."

"We do not think the Church today merits the accusation of lack of respect for the dignity and freedom of the human person," the Vatican spokesman said; "these suffer entirely different violations to which priority attention must be given."

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