Benedict Baptizes A Muslim

Both the news media and religious blogs are chattering today about Pope Benedict's baptizing of a prominent Italian Muslim named Magdi Allam. Reaction is all over the board. Some call it a provocative move that might derail the ongoing Catholic-Islamic dialogue. That may be, but if so it will be because the Muslim side makes that choice.

I heard some people on Fox News wondering whether the Vatican made a public relations "blunder" in having the Pope publicly baptize Allam. This is, to put it lightly, absurd. The Pope is completely aware of how Muslims react to these things and is not afraid to face it. Benedict is a shepherd, and he was doing what shepherds do: welcoming new sheep into the flock. The decision to convert was made by Mr. Allam himself. He wasn't kidnapped by Swiss Guards and forced into the baptismal font.

One point that is at least partly valid, however, is what kind of challenges this action will create for Christians who live in Muslim countries. Abu Daoud has a good response:

But will this bring persecution on the Christians in [Middle East/North Africa]? Well, the honest answer is they already have it. Living fearfully and sheepishly and hiding our lights under baskets is not the way of the Kingdom of God. Good for el papa. Let your light shine before man. Allam is a Christian now, and a son of the Catholic church. That is good news and we are to shout it from roof tops if at all possible. In Rome it is still, for now, possible. The day is coming when it may not be...

Christians in MENA will indeed live with this for years. They will live with the image of the best known Christian in the world baptizing a Muslim. It will give them hope. It will encourage other Muslims to convert. It will, in a few Muslims' minds, occasion the question, "What if I left?" Most of them have never even considered the possibility. Many of them don't even know that people DO leave Islam.

This is great news for the Catholic Church as well as the mission to Muslims. Muslims respect the Catholic Church and the pope because he is powerful. That is a language that they can understand. They know that he holds more sway around the world Christians than does any single person in Islam. They know he has a country of his own. They know his office is very ancient. These things, to the Muslim mind, and specifically to the Muslim Arab mind are often attractive. Becoming a non-denominational Christian with no clear affinity or relation to anyone else is not always appealing to a Muslim considering conversion.

So yes, will there be persecution? Of course, but at least this time it will be for a good and glorious reason: the public confession of faith of a Muslim hajji in the best-known church in the world on the holiest day of the year by that city's bishop.

I would be very interesting in knowing if the decision to have Allam baptized on worldwide TV by the Pope himself was made before or after this week's Osama bin Ladin tape. The Al Qaeda leader accused the Pope of taking part in a "crusade" against Islam. If this was the Vatican's response to Bin Ladin, then they are clearly willing to play rhetorical hardball.

In any case, it was most definitely not a P.R. blunder. Welcome to Christianity, Mr. Allam. Your example will bring much good into the world.

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