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Pope's Easter theme is peace

Thousands hear rainswept Mass

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times / March 24, 2008

VATICAN CITY - Decrying modern "wounds that disfigure humanity," Pope Benedict XVI used a rain-soaked Easter Sunday to make a plea for the "moderation and forgiveness" that can bring peace to troubled parts of the world, especially the Middle East and Tibet.

And he praised the ongoing "miracle" of conversion, just 12 hours after baptizing as a Roman Catholic one of Italy's most controversial Muslims.

Tens of thousands of umbrella-toting pilgrims and tourists gathered in St. Peter's Square to hear the pope's Easter Mass as Christians around the world celebrated their holiest day, when they believe Jesus was resurrected.

Injustice, hatred, and violence "are the scourges of humanity, open and festering in every corner of the planet," the pope said in his traditional twice-a-year "Urbi et Orbi" message - Latin for "to the city and the world" - at the end of the Mass.

He urged Tibet, Africa, and the Middle East to "seek solutions that will safeguard peace and the common good."

Cold wind whipped priests' cassocks and brightly colored tulips decorating the piazza, and rain drenched worshipers, diplomats, and the feather plumes of the Swiss Guards. The pope was protected under a large white canopy above the altar.

Perhaps the most unusual element of the Easter celebration was the attention being showered on the conversion from Islam to Christianity of Magdi Allam, a prominent Egyptian-born Italian newspaper editor and columnist.

Benedict, who baptized Allam at Saturday night's Easter vigil service, said a prayer during yesterday's ceremony that acclaimed the "miracle" of conversion, which he added had first populated the Christian faith.

Allam, 55, has attained celebrity status in Italy with his provocative critiques of Islam, especially radical Islam, and defense of Israel, positions that he says brought him death threats and a government-supplied security detail.

By his own account, Allam was never a practicing Muslim, was raised by Catholics, is married to a Catholic, and has lived most his life in Italy. So his embrace of Catholicism was not surprising, although the Vatican kept his baptism a secret until the last moment.

In a letter he published yesterday in his newspaper, Corriere della Sera, Allam said he chose to convert after a "gradual and profound internal meditation" in which he concluded he had to abandon Islam.

"Beyond . . . the phenomenon of extremists and Islamic terrorism at the world level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual," he wrote.

Allam wrote that he realized he was probably dooming himself to "another death sentence" but said his baptism at the pope's hand was "the most beautiful day of my life." He also took a new middle name: Cristiano, or Christian.

Showcasing Allam's renouncement of Islam is risky for the pope, in part because it may inflame sentiment in the Muslim world, an area in which Benedict has attempted to open frank but conciliatory dialogue. Already, the pope has been threatened by Islamic radicals, including in a newly issued message last week in which Osama bin Laden accused the pontiff of mounting a "new crusade" against Islam.

In addition, the Catholic Church's interest in converting non-Christians, a sometimes violent process historically, remains a point of contention with other mainstream faiths.

A leader of one of Italy's main moderate Muslim organizations said yesterday that he was perplexed by Allam's decision. It was not necessary to convert to have good relations with Catholics, Sergio Yahe Pallavicini said.

The Vatican defended the featuring of Allam's conversion at the Easter eve ceremony inside St. Peter's Basilica, when he was baptized alongside six other adults. The pope poured water on Allam's head from a metal receptacle as the television cameras zoomed in.

"The Holy Father administers baptism during the Easter liturgy . . . without differentiating among people, considering them all of equal importance," the Vatican said in a statement.

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