It is difficult not to recognize similarities with the distant (early modern) past in the ceremony held on March 22, 2008, when the Egyptian born and naturalized Italian journalist Magdi Allam, a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs who has worked at various times for all of the most important newspapers in Italy—first at La Repubblica, then at il Corriere della Sera, and later at il Giornale—was baptized by Pope Benedict XVI during the Easter mass in St. Peter’s. The choice of the day, and the setting, as well as the presence of a representative of secular authority (Member of Parliament Maurizio Lupi) as godfather, were all elements that recalled, whether intentionally or not, the solemn baptisms of Muslims and Jews held in St. Peter’s and other Roman churches by Pius V, Clement X, and Benedict XIV, during the centuries when the papacy mounted a number of initiatives to attract or persuade members of other religions and even a single conversion was regarded as a major victory.
Although news of the event travelled mostly through television and cyberspace, Allam’s baptism was also the occasion for the publication of several conversion narratives that justified his decision, beginning with a letter to his colleagues at the Corriere, in which he recounted the emotions of the day of baptism and its significance, and later in Grazie Gesu. La mia conversione dall’Islam al Cattolicesimo, Allam unfolded the various phases of his life and religious development, beginning with the moment when the family of Italian businessmen who employed his mother sent him to a school in Cairo run by the Salesian order, his education by the sisters there, and his emigration to Italy, where his criticisms of the Islamic world earned him the wrath of extremists and forced him to travel under police protection. Ending with a plea for religious tolerance and dialogue between Muslims and Catholics, Allam places his own biography at the center of religious controversy in age when the war on terror and the clash of civilizations have replaced transubstantiation and free will as the dominant topics of debate.