Magdi Allam Recounts His Path to Conversion
Benedict XVI Baptized the Journalist at Easter Vigil
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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 23, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of Magdi Allam’s account of his conversion to Catholicism. The Muslim journalist was baptized by Benedict XVI at Saturday's Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
An abbreviated form of this account appeared as a letter to Paolo Mieli, the director of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Allam is the paper’s deputy director. The Italian version of the complete text is available at magdiallam.it.
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I am particularly happy to share with you my immense joy for this Easter of Resurrection that has brought me the gift of the Christian faith. I gladly propose the letter that I sent to the director of the Corriere della Sera, Paolo Mieli, in which I tell the story of the interior journey that brought me to the choice of conversion to Catholicism. This is the complete version of the letter, which was published by the Corriere della Sera only in part.
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That which I am about to relate to you concerns my choice of religious faith and personal life in which I do not wish to involve in any way the Corriere della Sera, which it has been an honor to be a part of as deputy director “ad personam” since 2003. I write you thus as protagonist of the event, as private citizen.
Yesterday evening I converted to the Christian Catholic religion, renouncing my previous Islamic faith. Thus, I finally saw the light, by divine grace -- the healthy fruit of a long, matured gestation, lived in suffering and joy, together with intimate reflection and conscious and manifest expression. I am especially grateful to his holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who imparted the sacraments of Christian initiation to me, baptism, confirmation and Eucharist, in the Basilica of St. Peter’s during the course of the solemn celebration of the Easter Vigil. And I took the simplest and most explicit Christian name: “Cristiano.” Since yesterday evening therefore my name is Magdi Crisitano Allam.
For me it is the most beautiful day of [my] life. To acquire the gift of the Christian faith during the commemoration of Christ’s resurrection by the hand of the Holy Father is, for a believer, an incomparable and inestimable privilege. At almost 56 […], it is a historical, exceptional and unforgettable event, which marks a radical and definitive turn with respect to the past. The miracle of Christ’s resurrection reverberated through my soul, liberating it from the darkness in which the preaching of hatred and intolerance in the face of the “different,” uncritically condemned as “enemy,” were privileged over love and respect of “neighbor,” who is always, an in every case, “person”; thus, as my mind was freed from the obscurantism of an ideology that legitimates lies and deception, violent death that leads to murder and suicide, the blind submission to tyranny, I was able to adhere to the authentic religion of truth, of life and of freedom.
On my first Easter as a Christian I not only discovered Jesus, I discovered for the first time the face of the true and only God, who is the God of faith and reason. My conversion to Catholicism is the touching down of a gradual and profound interior meditation from which I could not pull myself away, given that for five years I have been confined to a life under guard, with permanent surveillance at home and a police escort for my every movement, because of death threats and death sentences from Islamic extremists and terrorists, both those in and outside of Italy.
I had to ask myself about the attitude of those who publicly declared fatwas, Islamic juridical verdicts, against me -- I who was a Muslim -- as an “enemy of Islam,” “hypocrite because he is a Coptic Christian who pretends to be a Muslim to do damage to Islam,” “liar and vilifier of Islam,” legitimating my death sentence in this way. I asked myself how it was possible that those who, like me, sincerely and boldly called for a “moderate Islam,” assuming the responsibility of exposing themselves in the first person in denouncing Islamic extremism and terrorism, ended up being sentenced to death in the name of Islam on the basis of the Quran. I was forced to see that, beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive.
At the same time providence brought me to meet practicing Catholics of good will who, in virtue of their witness and friendship, gradually became a point of reference in regard to the certainty of truth and the solidity of values. To begin with, among so many friends from Communion and Liberation, I will mention Father Juliàn Carròn; and then there were simple religious such as Father Gabriele Mangiarotti, Sister Maria Gloria Riva, Father Carlo Maurizi and Father Yohannis Lahzi Gaid; there was rediscovery of the Salesians thanks to Father Angelo Tengattini and Father Maurizio Verlezza, which culminated in a renewed friendship with major rector Father Pascual Chavez Villanueva; there was the embrace of top prelates of great humanity like Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Monsignor Luigi Negri, Giancarlo Vecerrica, Gino Romanazzi and, above all, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, who personally accompanied me in the journey of spiritual acceptance of the Christian faith.
But undoubtedly the most extraordinary and important encounter in my decision to convert was that with Pope Benedict XVI, whom I admired and defended as a Muslim for his mastery in setting down the indissoluble link between faith and reason as a basis for authentic religion and human civilization, and to whom I fully adhere as a Christian to inspire me with new light in the fulfillment of the mission God has reserved for me.
Mine was a journey that began when at four years old, my mother Safeya -- a believing and practicing Muslim -- in the first in the series of “fortuitous events” that would prove to be not at all the product of chance but rather an integral part of a divine destiny to which all of us have been assigned -- entrusted me to the loving care of Sister Lavinia of the Comboni Missionary Sisters, convinced of the goodness of the education that would be imparted by the Catholic and Italian religious, who had come to Cairo, the city of my birth, to witness to their Christian faith through a work aimed at the common good. I thus began an experience of life in boarding school, followed by the Salesians of the Institute of Don Bosco in junior high and high school, which transmitted to me not only the science of knowledge but above all the awareness of values.
It is thanks to members of Catholic religious orders that I acquired a profoundly and essentially an ethical conception of life, in which the person created in the image and likeness of God is called to undertake a mission that inserts itself in the framework of a universal and eternal design directed toward the interior resurrection of individuals on this earth and the whole of humanity on the day of judgment, which is founded on faith in God and the primacy of values, which is based on the sense of individual responsibility and on the sense of duty toward the collective. It is in virtue of a Christian education and of the sharing of the experience of life with Catholic religious that I cultivated a profound faith in the transcendent dimension and also sought the certainty of truth in absolute and universal values.
There was a time when my mother’s loving presence and religious zeal brought me closer to Islam, which I occasionally practiced at a cultural level and in which I believed at a spiritual level according to an interpretation that at the time -- it was the 1970s -- summarily corresponded to a faith respectful of persons and tolerant toward the neighbor, in a context -- that of the Nasser regime -- in which the secular principle of the separation of the religious sphere and the secular sphere prevailed.
My father Muhammad was completely secular and agreed with the opinion of the majority of Egyptians who took the West as a model in regard to individual freedom, social customs and cultural and artistic fashions, even if the political totalitarianism of Nasser and the bellicose ideology of Pan-Arabism that aimed at the physical elimination of Israel unfortunately led to disaster for Egypt and opened the way to the resumption of Pan-Islamism, to the ascent of Islamic extremists to power and the explosion of globalized Islamic terrorism.
The long years at school allowed me to know Catholicism well and up close and the women and men who dedicated their life to serve God in the womb of the Church. Already then I read the Bible and the Gospels and I was especially fascinated by the human and divine figure of Jesus. I had a way to attend Holy Mass and it also happened, only once, that I went to the altar to receive communion. It was a gesture that evidently signaled my attraction to Christianity and my desire to feel a part of the Catholic religious community.
Then, on my arrival in Italy at the beginning of the 1970s between the rivers of student revolts and the difficulties of integration, I went through a period of atheism understood as a faith, which nevertheless was also founded on absolute and universal values. I was never indifferent to the presence of God even if only now I feel that the God of love, of faith and reason reconciles himself completely with the patrimony of values that are rooted in me.
Dear Director, you asked me whether I fear for my life, in the awareness that conversion to Christianity will certainly procure for me yet another, and much more grave, death sentence for apostasy. You are perfectly right. I know what I am headed for but I face my destiny with my head held high, standing upright and with the interior solidity of one who has the certainty of his faith. And I will be more so after the courageous and historical gesture of the Pope, who, as soon has he knew of my desire, immediately agreed to personally impart the Christian sacraments of initiation to me. His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims.
For my part, I say that it is time to put an end to the abuse and the violence of Muslims who do not respect the freedom of religious choice. In Italy there are thousands of converts to Islam who live their new faith in peace. But there are also thousands of Muslim converts to Christianity who are forced to hide their faith out of fear of being assassinated by Islamic extremists who lurk among us. By one of those “fortuitous events” that evoke the discreet hand of the Lord, the first article that I wrote for the Corriere on Sept. 3, 2003 was entitled “The new Catacombs of Islamic Converts.” It was an investigation of recent Muslim converts to Christianity in Italy who decry their profound spiritual and human solitude in the face of absconding state institutions that do not protect them and the silence of the Church itself. Well, I hope that the Pope’s historical gesture and my testimony will lead to the conviction that the moment has come to leave the darkness of the catacombs and to publicly declare their desire to be fully themselves. If in Italy, in our home, the cradle of Catholicism, we are not prepared to guarantee complete religious freedom to everyone, how can we ever be credible when we denounce the violation of this freedom elsewhere in the world? I pray to God that on this special Easter he give the gift of the resurrection of the spirit to all the faithful in Christ who have until now been subjugated by fear. Happy Easter to everyone.
Dear friends, let us go forward on the way of truth, of life and of freedom with my best wishes for every success and good thing.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]