Muslim defends high-profile baptism by pope
ROME (Reuters) - A Muslim whose baptism by Pope Benedict over Easter sparked criticism from Muslim scholars has defended his conversion and accused critics of trying to manipulate the event to attack the pontiff.
The baptism of Magdi Allam, an outspoken journalist known in Italy for his stinging attacks on Islam, has put a spotlight on the pope's often tense relationship with Muslims and upset proponents of Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Allam, who has said Islam is "physiologically violent", rejected as "groundless and malicious" criticism of his Roman Catholic baptism at an Easter eve service in St Peter's Basilica.
"My conversion (...) has been manipulated by many sides to discredit me and accuse the Holy Father," Allam said in a letter published on Saturday in the Corriere della Sera daily, where he is deputy editor.
The Egyptian-born Allam rejected suggestions that a lower-key, private conversion would have been more appropriate.
"I am dismayed and saddened when even some members of the Catholic clergy say that it would have been preferable if my baptism had taken place in a local parish, in a remote town," he said. "As if my baptism was something shameful to hide as much as possible."
"Well, I am proud of my conversion to Catholicism, I am proud that it took place in a public form and that it was publicized," said Allam, signing his letter with the middle name he took for the baptism, "Christian".
Some Muslim leaders have questioned why the Vatican chose to highlight Allam's conversion, two days after al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden accused the Pope of being part of a "new crusade" against Islam.
The Vatican sought on Thursday to put distance between the pontiff and Allam's political views. It said the journalist's opinions did not reflect Church policy.
In his letter, Allam took issue with what he branded "so-called moderate" Muslims who criticized his conversion, including a group of more than 200 Muslim scholars who have launched discussion forums with Christian groups.
A key figure in that group, Aref Ali Nayed, said Allam's baptism was a provocative act that raised questions about the Vatican's approach to Islam. The Vatican said it held Nayed in the highest respect and that dialogue should continue.
Catholic-Muslim relations nosedived in 2006 after Benedict delivered a lecture in Regensburg, Germany, that Muslims said implied Islam was violent and irrational.
Muslims around the world protested and the Pope sought to make amends by visiting the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul and praying towards Mecca with its imam.
Earlier in March, the Vatican agreed with Muslim leaders to establish a permanent, official dialogue to improve relations.
(Reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Robert Woodward)
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