VATICAN CITY A Muslim scholar who participated in recent Vatican talks to improve Catholic-Muslim relations criticized Pope Benedict XVI's Easter baptism of a prominent convert from Islam as a "provocative" act.
Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born TV and newspaper commentator who has denounced Islam as inherently violent, was baptized by the pope in a vigil service in St. Peter's Basilica.
Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, criticized what he called "the Vatican's deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam on such a special occasion and in such a spectacular way."
"It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points," Nayed said in a written statement.
He added that the baptism came "at a most unfortunate time when sincere Muslims and Catholics are working very hard to mend ruptures between the two communities."
Earlier this month, Nayed participated in two days of talks at the Vatican to prepare for an audience in November between the pope and Muslim religious leaders and scholars. Benedict's top official on interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, was among the participants.
The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano denied that the baptism had been played up, saying it was kept secret until just before the ceremony. It described the baptism as a papal "gesture" to stress "in a gentle and clear way, religious freedom."
"There are no hostile intentions toward a great religion like that of Islam," the newspaper wrote.
The Vatican has been eager to mend relations with moderate Islam and has placed a great deal of importance on the upcoming audience with representatives of 138 Muslim scholars who wrote to the pope last year calling for greater Muslim-Christian dialogue.
Their call came after Benedict gave a speech in 2006 citing a medieval emperor's words about Islam and violence. Benedict later expressed regret that the speech angered many in the Muslim world.
Nayed said work to improve relations would continue despite the "unfortunate episode" of Allam's baptism.
Allam, a deputy editor of Milan daily Corriere della Sera, has built his career as commentator and book author attacking Islamic extremism and supporting Israel.
In a Sunday piece for Corriere della Sera, he said the "root of the evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictual."
On Tuesday, Ugo Intini, Italy's deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs, criticized Allam's "very harsh condemnation" of Islam.
In an unusual appeal in a country where the government is highly respectful of the Holy See, Intini called on the Vatican, "after the emphasis given to Allam's conversion, to distance itself clearly from his statements."