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Vatican Aide Clarifies Baptism of Former Muslim

Says Church’s New Member Does Not Represent Holy See

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 30, 2008 ( A Vatican spokesman is suggesting that Benedict XVI’s willingness to baptize a high-profile convert from Islam may have aimed to affirm the freedom of religious choice, deriving from the dignity of the person.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, released a message Thursday in response to a statement from Professor Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for the 138 Muslim scholars who last fall wrote the Pope and other Christian leaders, to seek further dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Nayed’s statement noted his objections to the baptism of a deputy editor of Italy’s daily Corriere della Sera, Magdi Allam, which the Pontiff performed at the Holy Saturday Mass.

Continuing dialogue

Father Lombardi began by acknowledging Nayed’s affirmation of his “will to continue the dialogue toward a more profound mutual knowledge between Muslims and Christians.”

“He in no way questions the journey that began with the correspondence and the contacts established over the last year and a half, between the Muslim signatories of the well-known letters and the Vatican, in particular through the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue,” the Jesuit continued. “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.”

Nevertheless, Father Lombardi put Allam’s baptism at the Easter Vigil in context.

He said that “administering baptism to someone implies a recognition that that person has freely and sincerely accepted the Christian faith in its fundamental articles, as expressed in the ‘profession of faith,’ which is publicly proclaimed during the ceremony of baptism. Of course, believers are free to maintain their own ideas on a vast range of questions and problems, on which legitimate pluralism exists among Christians. Welcoming a new believer into the Church clearly does not mean wedding all that person’s ideas and opinions, especially on political and social matters.”

Father Lombardi clearly affirmed that Allam “has the right to express his own ideas.” And further, he said that these ideas “remain his personal opinions without in any way becoming the official expression of the positions of the Pope or of the Holy See.”

Regensburg again

Responding to Nayed’s reference to Benedict XVI’s 2006 lecture in Germany, which brought wide attention after the Pope’s quotes were taken out of context and falsely attributed, the Vatican aide affirmed that “explanations for interpreting [that address] correctly in accordance with the Pope’s intentions were given some time ago and there is no reason to question them once more.”

“At the same time,” Father Lombardi added, “some of the themes touched upon then, such as the relationship between faith and reason, between religion and violence, are naturally still the subject of reflection and debate, and of differing points of view, because they concern problems that cannot be resolved once and for all.”

Father Lombardi also addressed Nayed’s references to the Holy Father’s words during the Holy Saturday liturgy.

The Vatican aide affirmed that “the liturgy of the Easter vigil was celebrated as it is every year, and the symbolism of light and darkness has always been a part of it. It is a solemn liturgy and its celebration by the Pope in St. Peter’s Square is a very special occasion. But to accuse the Pope’s explanation of the liturgical symbols — something he always does and in which he is a master — of ‘Manichaeism’ reveals perhaps a misunderstanding of Catholic liturgy rather than a pertinent criticism of Benedict XVI’s words.”

Deserving different

Father Lombardi further considered Nayed’s statements on Catholic education.

“Finally, let us in turn express our own displeasure at what Professor Nayed says concerning education in Christian schools in Muslim-majority countries, where he objects to the risk of proselytism,” the priest said. “We feel that the Catholic Church’s great educational efforts, also in countries with a non-Christian majority […] where for a very long time the majority of students in Catholic schools and universities are non-Christian and have happily remained so — while showing great appreciation for the education they have received — deserves a quite different evaluation.

“We do not think the Church today merits the accusation of lack of respect for the dignity and freedom of the human person; these suffer entirely different violations to which priority attention must be given. Perhaps the Pope accepted the risk of this baptism also for this reason: to affirm the freedom of religious choice which derives from the dignity of the human person.”

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